A precocious child, Hughes learned to read at the age of three and a half. Before he was six, he was reading and reciting verses from the New Testament, doing mental arithmetic, and studying French and German. After only three and a half years of formal schooling, he graduated from high school at the age of thirteen. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University, Hughes went to Columbia Law School, where he ranked first in his class. When he took the New York bar examination in 1884, he received the highest grade given up to that time, 99 1/2 percent. He had a photographic memory and could read a paragraph at a glance, a treatise in an evening. These abilities made Hughes a formidable opponent at the bar-he practiced law for almost thirty years-and contributed to his success as a politician, judge, and negotiator.
To Hughes, duty meant doing worthy things and doing them well. He drove himself mercilessly. His sense of duty led him to public service and enabled him to excel in almost everything he undertook. Hughes had no personal or political advisers, no favorites, no confidants. Herbert Hoover once said that he was the most self-contained man he had ever known. He made his own judgments based on his own analyses. At work, he was organized, intense, and serious, and had little time for pleasantries. That side of him gave rise to an aloof, cool, and humorless public image. At home, however, he showed warmth and humor; he was a sensitive husband and a caring father of three children.
Hughes came close to being elected president in 1916. A shift of less than four thousand votes in California would have given him that state’s electoral votes and the presidency. If Hughes had not projected such an austere public image (or if he had secured the support of Governor Hiram W. Johnson), he would probably have been elected.
As secretary of state in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, Hughes negotiated a separate peace treaty with Germany when the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. He also chaired the Washington Disarmament Conference in 1921-1922, supported U.S. participation in the World Court, and withheld American recognition of the Soviet Union. Although he served two presidents who made political capital of rejecting Woodrow Wilson’s vision of internationalism, he conducted a foreign policy that recognized the international responsibilities of the United States. In Latin America he sought a means to reduce U.S. intervention while defending a traditional conception of the national interest. In Europe he asserted a constructive role for the United States while avoiding formal commitments that would have involved Congress or excited public opinion.
As chief justice, Hughes led the Supreme Court during one of its most difficult periods. He presided over the Court’s transformation of its basic role from defender of property rights to protector of civil liberties, writing the period’s landmark opinions on freedom of speech and press-Near v. Minnesota, Stromberg v. California, and DeJonge v. Oregon. He also successfully opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court in 1937.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.