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James Clark McReynolds (February 3, 1862August 24, 1946) was an Americanmarker lawyer and judge who served both as United States Attorney General under President Woodrow Wilson and as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

McReynolds served on the Court from October 12, 1914 to his retirement on January 31, 1941, and was known for his conservative opinions opposing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.

Early life

Born in Elkton, Kentuckymarker, he graduated as valedictorian from Vanderbilt Universitymarker, Nashville, Tennesseemarker in 1882 and graduated from the University of Virginiamarker School of Law in 1884. He was secretary to Senator Howell Edmunds Jackson, who later became an associate justice himself. McReynolds practiced law in Nashville and served as Professor of Commercial Law, Insurance, & Corporations at Vanderbilt University Law School, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1896. Under Theodore Roosevelt he was Assistant Attorney General from 1903 to 1907, when he resigned to take up private practice in New York, New Yorkmarker.

Attorney General and Supreme Court tenure

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson named him United States Attorney General and on August 19 of the next year appointed him to the Court, to a seat vacated by Horace H. Lurton. McReynolds was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 29, 1914, and received his commission the same day.

When rendering opinions, he was known for conciseness and brevity. His fierce opposition in the face of Franklin Roosevelt's legislation to fight the Great Depression led to his being labeled one of the "Four Horsemen", along with George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter and Pierce Butler.

McReynolds voted to strike down the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Social Security Act, and continued to vote against New Deal measures after the Court's 1937 "switch" to upholding New Deal legislation. Professor Howard Ball called McReynolds "the most strident Court critic of Roosevelt's New Deal programs." With the death of Butler in 1939, McReynolds was the last of the Four Horsemen on the bench.

When the Supreme Court Building opened in 1935, McReynolds, like most of the other Justices, refused to move his office from his apartment into the new building but continued to work out of the office he maintained at his apartment.

After a substantive hearing loss, assumed senior status on January 31, 1941, effectively resigning from the court. He continued to live at the Rochambeau Apartments in Washington, D.C.marker, until his death on August 24, 1946. He is buried in the Elkton Cemetery in Elkton, Kentuckymarker.

Important opinions

Justice McReynolds wrote two early decisions using the Fourteenth Amendment to protect civil liberties: Meyer v. Nebraska , and Pierce v. Society of Sisters . Meyer involved a state law that prohibited the teaching of modern foreign languages in public schools. Meyer, who taught German in a Lutheran school, was convicted under this law. McReynolds wrote that the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment included an individual's right "to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, to establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, and generally to enjoy privileges, essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men". Thus the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted to mean that liberty means more than freedom from bodily restraint. State regulation of liberty must be reasonably related to a proper state objective. The legislature's view of reasonableness was subject to supervision by the courts.

Pierce involved a challenge to a law forbidding parents to send their children to any but public schools. Justice McReynolds wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court, holding that the Act violated the liberty of parents to direct the education of their children. McReynolds wrote that "the fundamental liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only."

These decisions were revived long after McReynolds departed from the bench, to buttress the Court's announcement of a constitutional right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut , and later the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade .

McReynolds was also the author of the controversial decision in United States v. Miller , which was the only Supreme Court case that directly involved the Second Amendment until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.

In the field of tax law, McReynolds wrote for the Court in Burnet v. Logan, 283 U.S. 404 (1931), a significant decision setting out the Court's doctrine regarding "open transactions."

Personality and conflicts

McReynolds is widely considered one of the most unpleasant men to ever sit on the Court, being labeled "Scrooge" by Drew Pearson. Chief Justice William Howard Taft thought him selfish, prejudiced, "and someone who seems to delight in making others uncomfortable... He has a continual grouch, and is always offended because the court is doing something that he regards as undignified." Taft also wrote that McReynolds was the most irresponsible member of the Court, and that "[i]n the absence of McReynolds everything went smoothly."

Taft's dislike of McReynolds was not based on the latter's views of the Constitution and the law, which usually did not differ from the Chief Justice's. Taft wrote that although he considered McReynolds an "able man", he found him to be "selfish to the last degree... fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known,... one who delights in making others uncomfortable. He has no sense of duty... really seems to have less of a loyal spirit to the Court than anybody." Addicted to vacations, in 1929 McReynolds asked Taft to announce opinions assigned to him (McReynolds), explaining that "an imperious voice has called me out of town. I don't think my sudden illness will prove fatal, but strange things some time happen around Thanksgiving." Duck hunting season had opened and McReynolds was off to Maryland for some shooting. In 1925 he left so suddenly on a similar errand that he had no opportunity to notify the Chief Justice of his departure. Taft was infuriated: two important decisions he wanted to deliver were held up because McReynolds had not handed in a dissent before leaving.

He would not accept "Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals as law clerks." A blatant anti-Semite, McReynolds refused to speak to Louis Brandeis, the first Jew on the Court, for three years following Brandeis's appointment and, when Brandeis retired in 1939, did not sign the customary dedicatory letter sent to justices on their retirement. He habitually left the conference room when Brandeis spoke. When Benjamin Cardozo's appointment was being pressed on President Herbert C. Hoover, McReynolds joined with Justices Butler and Van Devanter in urging the White House not to "afflict the Court with another Jew." When news of Cardozo's appointment was announced, McReynolds is claimed to have said "Huh, it seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew, or both." During Cardozo's swearing-in ceremony, McReynolds pointedly read a newspaper, and would often hold a brief or record in front of his face when Cardozo delivered an opinion from the bench.According to John Frush Knox, McReynolds's law clerk in 1936-37 and the author of a memoir of his service, McReynolds never spoke to Cardozo at all. McReynolds even absented himself from the memorial ceremonies held at the Supreme Court in honor of Cardozo. He did not attend Felix Frankfurter's swearing-in, exclaiming "My God, another Jew on the Court!".

In 1922, Taft proposed that members of the Court accompany him to Philadelphia on a ceremonial occasion, but McReynolds refused to go, writing: "As you know, I am not always to be found when there is a Hebrew abroad. Therefore, my 'inability' to attend must not surprise you." McReynolds even refused to sit next to Brandeis (where he belonged on the basis of seniority) for the Court photograph in 1924. "The difficulty is with me and me alone," McReynolds wrote Taft. "I have absolutely refused to go through the bore of picture-taking again until there is a change in the Court, and maybe not even then." Taft capitulated, and no photograph was taken that year.

McReynolds's hates included Justice John Hessin Clarke, and his unpleasant manner towards Clarke is often blamed for the latter's premature resignation from the Court in 1922. Here also McReynolds refused to sign the joint letter sent to Clarke on his resignation. In a letter, Taft commented that "[t]his is a fair sample of McReynolds's personal character and the difficulty of getting along with him." Once, when another colleague, Harlan Fiske Stone, remarked to him of an attorney's brief: "That was the dullest argument I ever heard in my life," McReynolds replied: "The only duller thing I can think of is to hear you read one of your opinions."

Nor was McReynolds's rudeness confined to colleagues on the Court. Once, when called before the chairman of the Golf Committee at the Chevy Chase club after complaints were filed against him, McReynolds said: "I've been a member of this club a good many years, and no one around here has ever shown me any courtesy, so I don't intend to show any to anyone else." The indignant chairman replied: "Mr Justice, you wouldn't be a member of this club if it wasn't for your official position. The members of this club have put up with your discourtesy for years, merely because you are a member of the Supreme Court. But I'm telling you now that the next time there is a complaint against you, you'll be suspended from the privileges of the golf course." Justices Pierce Butler and Willis Van Devanter transferred from the Chevy Chase club to Burning Tree because McReynolds "got disagreeable even beyond their endurance."

He was also a confirmed misogynist. When a woman lawyer appeared in the courtroom, McReynolds would mutter: "I see the female is here again." He would often leave the bench when a woman lawyer rose to present a case. He thought the wearing of wrist watches by men to be effeminate, and the use of red fingernail polish by women to be vulgar.

In addition, he hated tobacco and forbade smoking in his presence. He is said to have been responsible for the "No Smoking" signs in the Supreme Court buildingmarker, which was inaugurated during his tenure. He would announce to any Justice who attempted to smoke in Conference that "tobacco smoke is personally objectionable to me." Few Justices would try, and those who did "were stopped at the threshold."

However, there was a kind streak to McReynolds. He was "extremely charitable" to the pages who worked at the Court, and had a great love of children. For example, he gave very generous assistance and adopted thirty-three children who were victims of the German bombing of London in 1940, and left a sizable fortune to charity. When Oliver Wendell Holmes's wife died, McReynolds broke down and wept at her funeral. Holmes wrote in 1926: "Poor McReynolds is, I think, a man of feeling and of more secret kindliness than he would get credit for." He would often entertain at his apartment, and even passed cigarettes to his guests on occasion. He often invited people for brunch on Sunday mornings. According to William O. Douglas, "[o]n these informal occasions in his own home he was the essence of hospitality and a very delightful companion." Once, when riding to his office on a street car, a drunk got on board and fell out in the aisle. McReynolds picked him up, helped him back to his seat, and sat beside him until they reached the top of Capitol Hill, leaving him only after giving explicit instructions to the conductor. And when due to absence of more senior justices it fell on him to preside in court, "he was the soul of courtesy, graciously greeting and raptly listening to the arguments by lawyers of both sexes."

Death and legacy

McReynolds died in Washington, D.C.marker His papers are at many libraries around the country, namely: University of Virginia Law Schoolmarker at Charlottesville, Virginiamarker; Harvard University Law Schoolmarker at Cambridge, Mass.marker Felix Frankfurter papers; Papers of John Knox, (1920-1980) available at the University of Virginiamarker and Northwestern Universitymarker; University of Kentuckymarker at Lexington, Kentuckymarker, William Jennings Price (1851-1952) papers; University of Michiganmarker Bentley Historical Library at Ann Arbor, Michiganmarker, Frank Murphy papers; Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesotamarker Pierce Butler papers; Tennessee State Library and Archivesmarker Nashville, Tennesseemarker Robert Boyte Crawford Howell papers;University of Virginiamarker,Charlottesville, Virginiamarker, Homer Stille Cummings papers


  • Bond, James Edward, 1992. I dissent : the legacy of Chief [sic] Justice James Clark McReynolds. Lanham MD: George Mason University Press. Distributed by arrangement with University Pub. Associates. The designation "Chief Justice" in the title is an error.
  • Knox, John, 1984, "A Personal Recollection of Justice Cardozo," Supreme Court Historical Society Quarterly 6.
  • Knox, John, 2002. The forgotten memoir of John Knox : a year in the life of a Supreme Court clerk in FDR's Washington. University of Chicago Press. Knox (1907-1997) clerked under McReynolds.


  1. Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  2. Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  3. This is the title of the chapter dedicated to McReynolds in Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen, The Nine Old Men, Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc. NY, 1936.
  4. Letter from Taft to Horace Taft, Dec. 26, 1924; quoted in Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft. A Biography, Farrack and Rinehart, Inc., NY, 1939; vol. 2, p. 971.
  5. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, volume 3: The Politics of Upheaval, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1960, p. 456.
  6. Letter from Taft to Helen Taft Manning, June 11, 1923, quoted in William Howard Taft: Chief Justice, by Alpheus Thomas Mason. Oldbourne, London, 1964, p. 215.
  7. Letter from Taft to Helen Taft Manning, June 11, 1923; Mason op. cit., pp. 215-216.
  8. Letter from J.C. McReynolds to Taft, Nov. 23, 1929, quoted in Mason, op. cit., p. 216.
  9. Letter from William Howard Taft to R.A. Taft, Feb. 1, 1925, quoted in Mason, op. cit., p. 216.
  10. Henry J. Abraham. Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Clinton, New and Revised Edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, pp. 133-135.
  11. "[McReynolds] was a headache. He would not speak to Brandeis, was clearly anti-Semitic, and was a disruptive force." Charles P. Taft, in "My Father the Chief Justice" in Yearbook 1977. The Supreme Court Historical Society edited by William F. Swindler, p. 8.
  12. According to David Burner's "James C. McReynolds", in The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789-1969. Their Lives and Major Opinions, Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., Chelsea House Publishers, NY, 1969, SBN 8352-0217-8, "Time called him 'Puritanical,' 'intolerably rude,' 'savagely sarcastic,' 'incredibly reactionary,' and 'anti-Semitic'". p. 2024.
  13. Liva Baker, The Justice from Beacon Hill. The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Harper Collins, Publishers, NY 1991, ISBN 0-06-016629-0, p. 465.
  14. Kermit L. Hall, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Oxford University Press, NY, 1992, p. 543.
  15. Leonard Baker, Brandeis and Frankfurter: A Dual Biography. Harper and Row, Publishers, NY 1984, ISBN 0-06-015245-1, p. 370.
  16. Quoted in Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 225.
  17. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 225.
  18. Andrew L. Kaufman, Cardozo, Harvard University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-674-09645-2, p. 480.
  19. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 225.
  20. Andrew Kaufman, op. cit., p. 480. Attributed to Paul A. Freund at a talk delivered before the Harvard Law School Forum, March 7, 1977, from Kaufman's notes.
  21. David Atkinson, Leaving the Bench: Supreme Court Justices at the End, University Press of Kansas, 1999, p. 111.
  22. Leonard Baker, op. cit., p. 357.
  23. Andrew Kaufman, op. cit., p. 480.
  24. Henry Julian Abraham, Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Bush II (2008), p. 140.
  25. Letter from McReynolds to Taft, ca. Feb., 1922, quoted in Mason, op. cit., pp. 216-217.
  26. Letter from McReynolds to Taft, ca. March 1924, quoted in Mason, op. cit., p. 217.
  27. Letter from Taft to McReynolds, Mar. 28, 1924, quoted in Mason, op. cit., p. 217.
  28. Ariens, Michael, James C. McReynolds.
  29. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 225.
  30. Letter from Taft to R.A. Taft, Oct. 26, 1922, quoted in Mason, op. cit., p. 217.
  31. David Burner, op. cit., p. 2024.
  32. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 226.
  33. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 131.
  34. David Burner, op. cit., p. 2024.
  35. David Burner, op. cit., pp. 2023-2024.
  36. William O. Douglas, The Court Years 1939-1975. The Autobiography of William O. Douglas. Random House, NY, 1980, ISBN 0-394-49240-4, p. 13.
  37. William O. Douglas, op. cit., p. 13.
  38. David Burner, op. cit., p. 2024.
  39. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., p. 226.
  40. David Burner, op. cit., p. 2024.
  41. William O. Douglas, op. cit., p. 13.
  42. William O. Douglas, op. cit., p. 14.
  43. Pearson and Allen, op. cit., pp. 226-227.
  44. List of repositories.

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