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Charles Evans Hughes: The Supreme Court Justice Who Resigned to Run for President

The following is a guest post by Sarah McKenna, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of the University of Maryland’s MLIS program.

It is very uncommon to leave a job in the federal judiciary to seek elected office. While several presidents were once part of the legislative branch, there are only a few who served on the judicial branch at some point during their career. One of the most well known examples of such crossover is William Howard Taft. Taft was elected president of the United States in 1908 and was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921. But before Chief Justice Taft joined the Court, there was a Supreme Court justice who came very close to being elected president: Charles Evans Hughes. As one of the few justices to leave the Court to run for office, Hughes’ 1916 campaign was a unique event.

Charles Evans Hughes in a sepia-toned photograph. Captioned, "Charles E. Hughes, Republican Candidate for President."

Charles E. Hughes, Republican candidate for president. Photograph. 1916. Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00462. 

Following his time as an attorney, Hughes began his political career as the governor of New York. In the spring of 1910, President Taft nominated Hughes to the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice. In less than six years, Justice Hughes authored over 150 opinions on the Court. By the Spring of 1916, rumors were published in newspapers that Hughes was on the verge of running for the presidency against President Woodrow Wilson. The rumors turned out to be true: the Republican Party nominated Hughes for the ticket that June. Since he was not attending the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Justice Hughes initially accepted the nomination via telegram:

I have not desired the nomination. I have wished to remain on the bench. But in this critical period of our national history I recognize that it is your right to summon and that it is my paramount duty to respond…I cannot fail to answer with the pledge of all that is in me to the service of our country. Therefore I accept the nomination.

With his nomination in hand, Justice Hughes stepped down from the Supreme Court and spent the summer and fall of 1916 on the campaign trail.

The year 1916 proved to be the “critical period” that Hughes referenced in his acceptance which, in turn, led him to touch on two specific political events during his campaign. During a speech in New York on August 1, Hughes heavily focused on the nation’s current relations with Mexico. In March 1916, Mexican Army General Francisco Villa attacked the small town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing dozens of U.S. civilians and soldiers. Following the attack, President Wilson kick-started the Mexican Expedition by sending General John Pershing and U.S. troops to search for Villa. According to an article published by the National Archives and Records Administration in 1997, by the time Hughes was nominated for the Republican presidential ticket, “tensions between the United States and Mexico were at a breaking point” and the two countries were on the brink of another war. In his August speech, Hughes appeared to be against the Wilson administration’s actions with the expedition, declaring that “we have not helped Mexico. She lies prostrate, impoverished, famine-stricken…we have made enemies, not friends.” Instead, Hughes called for “peace, stability and prosperity.”

In addition to foreign relations, Hughes also appeared to support the suffrage movement. Although there are not very many sources available to analyze Hughes’ views on suffrage, he advocated for a constitutional amendment to provide women the right to vote. In one such telegram message, Hughes stated that “it [is] most desirable that the question of women’s suffrage be settled…the proposed amendment should be submitted, ratified…” Alice Paul applauded Hughes’s support and urged women to acknowledge that this “only leaves the Democratic party in the unenviable position of opposing the enfranchisement of American women.” As a result of his stance, suffragettes attended parades and rallies to encourage men to vote for Hughes.

In the following months, Hughes and his wife, Antoinette, traveled across the country gaining the support of voters and state governors. Between early August and mid-September, the Hugheses planned to travel to several cities across the country, such as Detroit, Fargo, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, and New York City. Despite the onerous journey in such a short period of time, Charles Evans Hughes was engaging with his supporters. In newsreel footage of a campaign speech in Duquesne, PA, on September 27, 1916, Hughes is seen enthusiastically speaking and gesturing to the large crowd of supporters.

Despite the widespread support from many voters and state governors around the United States, Hughes lost the 1916 election to President Wilson. The race was close and many newspapers across the nation printed differing results in the days following the election: one day Hughes was ahead, and the next, Wilson was declared the winner. Today, historians believe that California was the deciding state; Wilson earned just over 3,000 more votes than Hughes to win California’s electoral votes. If Hughes had won California instead, many believed he could have been elected president of the United States.

But Charles Evans Hughes was not done with the federal government. After losing the 1916 election, he returned to private practice in New York. Five years later, in 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Hughes as Secretary of State; he served in this position until 1922. Hughes finally rounded out his career when President Herbert Hoover re-nominated him to the Supreme Court as chief justice in 1930 to replace William Howard Taft. Hughes finally retired from the Supreme Court in 1941, twenty-five years after his initial resignation.

One Comment

  1. Kent Anderson
    September 19, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Has there ever been another justice, other than Hughes, who resigned from the court, then returned to it, nominated by a different president than the first time? On first glance at a list of justices, it appears that Hughes is the only one to occupy this unique spot in history.

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