The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions - Vol. 2

By Leon Friedman; Fred L. Israel | Go to book overview

His own end became him. He caught a chill while trying to help his sick coachman outdoors in damp and windy weather. Despite his indisposition, Waite insisted on attending Court because of his fear that his wife, who was vacationing in California, might become alarmed to learn through newspapers that he had not been there as usual. Except for a brief illness in 1885, he had never been absent. The cold became what seemed to be only a mild case of pneumonia, but a swift and unexpected reversal caused his death on March 23, 1888. There were impressive and spontaneous memorial services in his own Toledo.

The press and later commentators wrote of him with a moderation which conformed to his career. One of the most often repeated phrases compared him to Chief Justice Taney as, presumably, against Chief Justice Marshall. In the wake of the Civil Rights Cases, this had been intended as derogatory, with the Dred Scott decision in view. But obviously this comparison overlooked the fact that Taney had been an outstanding Jacksonian and egalitarian, and that the Charles River Bridge decision was also part of his overall legal bias. In short, a comparison with Taney could be complimentary as well as slurring, and, indeed, the legal analysis of the Marshall Court could be profitably probed.

The criticism that Waite offered little leadership to a needy age has some validity, except in the instance of the Munn decision and related cases. They do not take into account, however, the moderating influence he exerted in a time which gave opportunities to extremists. It is true that Waite's failure to create outlines for his legal philosophy by means of notable dissents indicates a distinct limitation of his capacities. But in the long view, the values of judicial balance, could hardly have been served better than by Waite's steadiness of purpose, length of service, and personal character. Certainly many of his critics, those critical of his civil rights legacy, for example, had not themselves displayed better theoretical positions or offered more practical aid.

Waite was a moderate man in a polemic age. As long as conflicts between business and governmental authority, or between the civil rights of individuals and state legislation continue to trouble the Court and the nation, his reputation will rise or fall according to the stand of each historian. But if one considers the stability he gave to the Supreme Court during these crucial years, Waite's position in history is secure.


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Waite has been better served by biographers than some more conspicuous justices. C. Peter Magrath, Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character ( New York, 1963) is a studied, rounded account of his life and work, and supplements, rather than supersedes, Bruce R. Trimble's Chief Justice Waite: Defender of the Public Interest ( Princeton, N.J., 1938). Waite's career clearly reflects the social questions of his time. It is bound up in the events treated in

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