Charles Evans Hughes: Greenpoint’s Forgotten Statesman

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.

He did not look like a Greenpointer, he did not act like one either and with his eloquent vocabulary and upper-class speech he sure did not sound like one, nevertheless, Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes came of age in a home on Milton Street. The Ivy League-educated patrician Robert Moses who built and destroyed so much in New York was certain that Hughes had never lived in Greenpoint and bet Pete McGuinness that the Supreme Court Justice had never lived locally. A letter from Hughes to McGuinness published by New York newspapers confirming that he had in fact actually lived locally won the bet for McGuinness. Hughes is a forgotten figure, even locally, but Hughes’ legacy in Albany and more importantly in Washington is so huge that it should not be forgotten.

Brooklyn Eagle archives from 08/26/43

Charles Evans Hughes was born in Watkins Glen, New York in 1862 during the Civil War. In 1874, at age 12, he arrived locally when his father, Rev. David Hughes, was ordained minister to the Union Avenue Baptist Church that once stood on Manhattan Avenue, which was then called Union Avenue. Hughes was definitely a minister’s son and he inherited both the positive and negative legacies of having a stern moralistic father. His father was intensely religious; one might even say fanatically religious. He would knock the pipes and cigarettes out of people’s hands on the Greenpoint Ferry because he believed smoking immoral. Charles was raised in an overly strict, gloomy puritanical home, where whatever he did, was never quite good enough. The Puritanism of his upbringing made him a melancholy child who acted more like a young minister than a teenager. Hughes was scrupulously honest, but even as a boy he was self-righteous and gloomy. An only child, he had few friends and was prevented from spending much time with other boys due to his many duties in the church.

If he lacked charisma, then Hughes made up for it with brains. He had a photographic memory and began reading Shakespeare at eight. He took the ferry across to Manhattan where he studied under the famous educator Thomas Hunter at P. S. # 35 where he was so superior to the other smart boys in his class that he graduated at fourteen and went onto college. His parents expected him to study for a ministry, but he chose law instead. He proved to be a brilliant law student who excelled at creating coherent legal arguments and became a partner in a prestigious firm handling corporate law. He married and had children and seemed like he would have a quiet life out of the scrutiny of the public gaze.

In 1903, Albany was investigating corruption by the gas and electric monopolies. Senator Stevens asked Hughes if he would investigate the two firms who dominated gas and electricity. Hughes reluctantly agreed and conducted a brilliant investigation into the two monopolies, showing his genius by demonstrating in very simple terms the complex tricks the two monopolies used to defraud customers and investors. He also exposed massive corruption in the insurance industry in another state investigation. In a state desperately in need of reform, Hughes seemed like a godsend and the perfect choice for governor. With New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt on his way to Washington to be Vice President, Teddy needed a reformer to replace him and protect his legacy and endorsed Hughes for governor. Hughes won the Republican nomination and then narrowly defeated his opponent for the governorship.

Hughes was elected governor in 1907 and reformers were joyous. Hughes was such a moralist that he could not cut deals to advance the good of the general public. His own party even turned against him and he made little headway. Republicans in Albany taunted him as “ Charles the Baptist” and blocked many of his worthy reforms. Hughes was frustrated in Albany at his inability to carry out reform.

Charles Evans Hughes and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (courtesy of PICRYL)

Hughes was offered a position on the Supreme Court in 1910, which he jumped at and resigned as governor. Confirmed by the Senate, Hughes proved to be a brilliant Supreme Court Justice who had an amazing ability to marshal facts into cogent compelling legal briefs. He wrote a number of decisions for regulation of big business that reformers cheered.

In 1916, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court to run for president against Woodrow Wilson whose campaign slogan related to the Great War, which was raging across Europe. It read,” he kept us out of war.” Hughes was an interventionist who believed America should be in the war and he said so, losing Hughes millions of votes. He was also a boring speaker who could not connect with the common man. Hughes lost a close election and believed falsely that his days of service to America were done.

Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (1924). (via Flickr – U.S. Department of State )

During the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover tapped Hughes to be Supreme Court Chief Justice. Hughes argued that he was too old, but agreed to serve. He opposed many of F.D.R’s New Deal pieces of legislation and voted against some of them on the court proving to be a thorn in the side of Roosevelt and the New Deal. He and the other justices struck down many important pieces of New Deal legislation. Roosevelt and Democrats were so irate at Hughes and the Supreme Court that they threatened to change the Constitution by enlarging the court.

With huge majorities in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate, Roosevelt would have seemingly had little trouble in amendments the Constitution and packing the courts. Hughes realized that the Constitution itself was under threat. The independence of the Judicial Branch was under attack and Hughes had to act. He persuaded a key swing vote on the court not to strike down some New Deal legislation and he worked behind the scenes, writing to senators about the many dangers of packing the court. His testimony in 1936 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee was amazing. Hughes presented such concise common sense legal arguments that despite the fact that most of the senators were Democrats like Roosevelt, they saw the danger in allowing the court to be increased in size and the proposed amendment to the constitution died in the Judiciary Committee. It was one of the few defeats Roosevelt ever suffered as president.

Hughes on the cover of TIME magazine

Hughes retired from the bench in 1941. One of his colleagues on the Supreme Court said of Hughes,” God must have gotten his formulas mixed up for he gave the Chief Justice more intellect than any mortal was supposed to have.” When he died in 1948, the New York Times praised him as “ The very embodiment of justice.” The church where Hughes taught Sunday school is long gone, but the contributions he made to American democracy remain today.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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