Charles Evans Hughes: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
In this lesson you will learn about Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948). He was an American statesmen and jurist who served as an attorney, governor of New York, two-time member of the Supreme Court, and secretary of state under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

Hughes: Attorney, Governor, Supreme Court Member

Few statesmen or jurists match the accomplishments of Charles Evans Hughes. Born in 1862 in Glen Falls, New York, Hughes was the only child of a Baptist minister father from Wales and a Scotch-Irish mother. Hughes married Antoinette Carter in 1888, and they had three daughters. As a young man, Hughes demonstrated remarkable intelligence. He attended Colgate College, Brown University and then Columbia Law School where he graduated top in his class. He had a photographic memory and nearly aced the bar exam. As an attorney, he became known for his investigation and support in regulating the insurance industry. He served as governor of New York from 1907-1910, having beaten out noted newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst. A deeply religious man, in 1907 and while still governor, he became the first president of the recently founded Northern Baptist Convention. Toward the end of his second term as governor, he resigned in 1910 when President Taft nominated him for his first Supreme Court appointment. He was notable for his favorable opinions in regulating businesses. He resigned from the Supreme Court in 1916 for a failed presidential bid against incumbent Woodrow Wilson. He returned to his law practice for a few years, until appointed as secretary of state under President Harding in 1921.

Hughes on the presidential campaign trail in Chicago in 1916 with his wife Antoinette
Hughes on the presidential campaign trail in 1916 with his wife Antoinette

Hughes: Secretary of State and Internationalist

Hughes began his service as secretary of state under President Harding and then under President Coolidge following Harding's sudden death. His service as secretary of state was notable for several achievements. Hughes organized and led the four-person American delegation to the Washington Naval Conference from 1921-1922. Made up of nine nations, this conference was organized to address the growing naval arms race and Japanese modernization and naval expansion in the Pacific, which threatened western interests. To limit new naval construction, this conference resulted in three separate treaties: The Four-Power, the Five-Power, and the Nine-Power treaties that, collectively, respected the Pacific holdings of fellow nations, limited naval construction of varied types of ships based on a carefully worked out ratio, limited the use of submarines and toxic gas weapons, and respected the territory of China. Another accomplishment was his mediating role in the 1921 $25 million payout to Columbia over the U.S. role in detaching Panama from Columbia in 1903 in order to build the Panama Canal. Hughes also signed the Hughes-Peyando agreement in 1922 with the Dominican Republic, which ended a six-year occupation of the island nation.

In the interim from 1926-1930 Hughes showed his internationalist interest and served in various roles in the Netherlands. He served as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and as a judge on the Permanent Court of International Justice, also at The Hague. The former was founded in 1899 as part of the First Hague Conference to arbitrate disputes between nations and the latter was founded in 1922 as an international court as part of the League of Nations. It became known as the International Court of Justice or simply the World Court in 1945 under jurisdiction of the United Nations. These were key roles because, due to the U.S. refusal to join the League of Nations, the U.S. had previously only played a minimal role in international judicial affairs. Also, in 1927, he co-founded the National Conference for Christians and Jews - later renamed the National Conference for Community and Justice - to fight against heightened anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment in American politics. His role in this latter capacity reflects the difference between his public and private image. Professionally, his colleagues knew him as detached and single-minded, but his family knew him as warm and generous. His work on behalf of Catholic and Jewish interests of these decades demonstrates this latter image.

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