Charles Evans Hughes

Like millions of other Americans, Greenpointers today are paying close attention to the presidential campaign, but a hundred years ago in 1916 Greenpointers were very interested in the presidential election because a local, Charles Evans Hughes, from Milton Street was the Republican nominee for president.

Hughes, born in 1862 in upstate New York, arrived in Greenpoint as a twelve year old when his father Rev. David Hughes became pastor of the Union Baptist Church on Noble Street. Hughes, a child prodigy with a photographic memory, was so bright that he left for college at age fourteen and passed the bar with one of the highest scores ever recorded. He became a corporate lawyer, but gained fame as a reformer when in 1905, he was appointed as counsel to the New York state legislative “Stevens Gas Commission”, a committee investigating utility rates. He brilliantly revealed the price fixing that was robbing New York State consumers, while also exposing the corrupt ties between the industry and Albany Law makers. He also conducted a state investigation of the insurance industry, which also revealed fraud, overpricing and political corruption.
Hughes got elected Governor of New York State, principally because the massively popular President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, backed his candidacy. Unfortunately, Hughes was incapable of making the kind of backroom deals politicians needed to make to be successful and he became frustrated by his inability to get things done in Albany. On April 25, 1910, President William H. Taft nominated Hughes for Associate Justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice David J. Brewer, the Greenpoint minister’s son resigned as Governor and his nomination to the highest court was confirmed by the senate.

Hughes left the Supreme Court to run for president and in 1916 Hughes was nominated by the Republican Party to run against incumbent Woodrow Wilson who campaigned on the slogan” He kept us out of war” in reference to America’s neutrality in the World War I. Hughes attacked Wilson for America’s military intervention in Mexico and also attacked the president for his support of various “pro-labor” laws such as limiting the workday to eight hours, on the grounds that they were harmful to business interests. His attacks on Wilson’s labor stance had little appeal, however, especially among America’s millions of factory workers who supported Wilson’s labor laws.

Hughes had a fatal flaw as a campaigner. He was, by all accounts, an incredibly boring speaker who memorized his long tedious speeches. Still, many people were sure that Hughes would win, but Hughes made a tactical blunder when he campaigned across the state of California, but never met the powerful Republican Governor Hiram Walker who took offense at a perceived snub and did little in his state to elect Hughes.

Hughes went to bed on the night of the election believing that he would wake up to news of his election. When a Western Union telegraph messenger appeared at the Hughes home he was told that “The President” could not be awakened. The messenger said sarcastically, “Tell the President when he wakes up that he isn’t the president; Wilson has won California.” Hughes lost a narrow election to Wilson with California being the key to Wilson’s victory.

Although he never became President Hughes went on to serve as Secretary of State and with great distinction as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It was on the nation’s highest court that Hughes really shone and the boy from Milton Street is considered one of the greatest American legal minds ever.

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