1916 campaign button for Charles Evans Hughes, recent Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court

Chief Justice but not President Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes went to bed on election night of 7 November 1916 as the next President of the United States. Then late returns from California came in. Out of nearly one million votes cast, Woodrow Wilson had taken the state by only 3,800. When a reporter called for Hughes’ reaction in the morning, he was told “the president is asleep.” The man retorted, “When he wakes up, tell him he isn’t the president.”

This apocryphal story capped the run of Hughes who, after resigning as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, had accepted the Republican Party’s nomination. During the campaign, unfortunately, Hughes had accidentally snubbed Hiram Johnson, the Progressive governor of California, by missing a meeting and so lost his endorsement. At 3.1 percent nationally, Democrat Wilson’s winning popular vote margin as a sitting president was the smallest ever until George Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Women had nothing to say in the matter, though, because the XIXth Amendment to the Constitution wouldn’t be ratified until August 1920, almost three months before the next presidential election. This, of course, was the law allowing women the right to vote. The president elected shortly afterward, Republican Warren G. Harding, is still remembered for the bribery of the Teapot Dome Scandal and his extra-marital affair with Nan Britton who, no matter what else, could finally vote.

Hughes the 1916 loser went back to work as a lawyer at Carter, Hughes & Cravath in New York until after the 1920 election, when he was named as Secretary of State by – President Harding – and served four years. From 1925 on, back with the family firm, he argued over 50 cases before the Supreme Court. In 1930 Republican President Herbert Hoover nominated him for Chief Justice.

Born on 11 April 1868 in Glens Falls in upstate New York, Hughes senior was the son of Reverend David Hughes, a Welsh Baptist minister from Monmouthshire, South Wales, and Mary Connelly. Charles graduated from Columbia Law School in 1884 with highest honors. He met Antoinette Carter, daughter of the senior partner of his law firm, and married her in 1888. The firm continues today as Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. While at precursor CHC, Hughes also taught at Cornell and New York University law schools.

Hughes and Woodrow Wilson were colleagues in the 1890s, teaching at New York Law School, then in the Financial District. Wilson moved on in 1902 to accept the post of president of Princeton University and later served as governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. A leader in the Progressive Movement, although a Republican, and a crusading anti-corruption lawyer, Hughes ran successfully for governor of New York in 1906, defeating publisher William Randolph Hearst.

While campaigning for governor, Hughes gathered accolades for his integrity – and a few nicknames. His awkward gravity led to the name of “Charles the Baptist,” particularly appropriate since he was also elected president of the newly-formed Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. He was also called “The Animated Feather Duster,” for his beard and his special investigator post with the US attorney general.

He left Albany in 1910 when named as a justice of the high court by President William Howard Taft who subsequently lost his re-election bid to Wilson in 1912. Hughes lost in 1916 to Wilson as the peace candidate who campaigned with the slogans “He kept us out of war” and “America First” as World War I was ravaging Europe. On 6 April 1917, just before Hughes’ 55th birthday, Congress declared war.

When named Chief Justice in 1930, Hughes succeeded ex-president Taft who earlier had been named to the Court in 1921 by Warren G. Harding. Hughes the Republican returned to his earlier progressivism and often became a swing voter in favor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He retired in 1941, and at 86, Chief Justice Hughes died while on vacation on Cape Cod on 27 August 1948.