Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Hugo Black and Thomas Jefferson

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Hugo Black and Thomas Jefferson

Article excerpt

Among high-ranking public officials in the United States during the 20th century, none was a more ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson than Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. Few, if any, looked to Jefferson for inspiration and guidance on important public issues to the extent that Black did, both as Senator and Justice. This Jeffersonian influence had two sources. One was Black's origin and early life experiences; the other was his intense interest in reading and learning from history.

His origin was simple. He was born in Clay County, Alabama, in 1886. This was a land of yeoman farmers, the sort idealized by Jefferson. Situated in the east central part of the state, the county had not been part of the antebellum cotton plantation society that flourished in the Tennessee Valley to the north and the Black Belt to the south. Populist sentiment was strong in that region during his boyhood, challenging the dominance of the Democratic Party by Black Belt planters and Birmingham industrialists. Although not affluent, his father was a county-seat merchant, above average in economic status in that time and place. But Black knew what hardship was, saw it all around him, understood the struggles of many to survive and make ends meet. He grew up imbued with the democratic ideal and belief in the ability and right of the common people to control their own destiny. In short, the circumstances in which he was reared developed a mind receptive to the views of Thomas Jefferson.

That frame of mind was reinforced by his experiences thereafter. After a year in medical school, seeking to follow in the footsteps of his older brother who was a physician, Black decided that he preferred law. He enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School and graduated in 1906. He entered law practice in Birmingham and soon was appointed judge of the police court. There he was exposed to the full range of human travail, misconduct, and degradation. Then he became prosecuting attorney for that burgeoning industrial and metropolitan area. At the conclusion of service in the army during the World War, he returned to law practice in Birmingham. Over the next half dozen years he achieved distinction as one of the most effective courtroom attorneys in Alabama. His clients were mainly individuals suing large corporations-the power company, the railroads, and the steel, iron, and coal companies-for personal injuries or job-related grievances.

In 1926, having never run for statewide office, he launched a campaign for the United States Senate. His opponents included some of the state's best-known and most influential political figures. But he won, after an effective hand-shaking campaign in every county. He took his seat in the Senate in January 1927, at the age of 40. He brought to Washington a keen awareness, stemming from his experiences with the criminal law and the representation of workers, of the power of government and big business over "plain people," as he called them, and the need for safeguards against potential abuses of such power.

In Washington, Black was often misunderstood and underestimated. In some quarters he was viewed as nothing more than a political opportunist and unlettered countryman. What was not appreciated, then and for many years afterward, was that Black was an avid and profound reader of history.

That interest seems to have been initially inspired by a course in Greek history he took while in law school, setting in motion a lifetime of reading on Ancient Greece and Rome. Among his favorite authors were Thucydides, Tacitus, and Livy. Among his favorite works was The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton. He made it required reading for his law clerks. He believed that such books would be more helpful to his clerks than, for example, books on federal jurisdiction. Ranking along with Greece and Rome among Black's reading interests were the English constitutional struggles of the 17th century and the formative period of the American Constitution. …

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