William O. Douglas "Political Ambitions" and the 1944 Vice-Presidential Nomination: A Reinterpretation

By Moses, James L. | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

William O. Douglas "Political Ambitions" and the 1944 Vice-Presidential Nomination: A Reinterpretation


Moses, James L., The Historian


More than any other Supreme Court justice in American history, William O. Douglas involved himself deeply in the political affairs of his day. In over 36 years on the Court, Douglas served as advisor to Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and was himself four times seriously considered by Democratic party activists for the presidency or vice-presidency. Certainly Douglas involved himself heavily in the policy debates of his times. Did he, though, have presidential ambitions? Historians, political scientists, legal scholars, and judicial biographers all have attributed to Douglas a desire to leave the Court for the White House. They portray him as a restless jurist who regretted taking a seat on the Court in 1939 at the age of 40, cutting short a promising political career begun as the highly successful and politically visible chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Douglas is sometimes portrayed as a behind-the-scenes manipulator (or silent benefactor, at least) of a concerted effort to get him off the Court and into the presidency or vice-presidency. Indeed, it has become a rarely challenged axiom of American political history that Douglas harbored presidential ambitions.(1)

This work offers a different interpretation. While the historical record clearly reveals the lifelong, open, and often vigorous political activism of Justice Douglas in both foreign and domestic affairs, it does not support the notion of an ambitious justice looking to enter electoral politics. Contrary to nearly all the existing scholarship concerning Douglas and his supposed presidential ambitions, the justice did not covet the Oval Office. Of course, one cannot know the thoughts of another; it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Douglas regretted his failure to actively pursue elective office in the 1940s. As Douglas himself said,

   I didn't particularly like it [being on the Court] after I got there. It
   took me two years to get used to the routines. But later I came to
   appreciate the chance for quiet and reflection and independence, and I
   became greatly absorbed in the court's work.(2)

The documentary record reveals a man deeply immersed in politics, yet wary of it; a man politically connected to the Washington of his times, but also set apart from it by the very nature of his position; a justice who forcefully involved himself in the policy questions of the day, but who also held to a peculiarly personal set of beliefs concerning the propriety of political activity on the part of Supreme Court justices. Douglas refused to make any public statements about his possible candidacy in 1944 lest they be misinterpreted as political ambition, and many scholars incorrectly take Douglas's public inaction as proof of his complicity in the attempts to get him into politics. Privately, however, he repeatedly asked that political activity on his behalf cease. While surrounded by political intrigue and intense political machinations conducted on his behalf by admirers of his political philosophy, Justice William O. Douglas opted to stay out of elective politics and instead played an active political role from the security of the Bench.

Had Douglas harbored presidential ambitions, though, he could not have planned a better opportunity than the 1944 contest for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. Well aware of Roosevelt's failing health, he and other Washington insiders knew that the man chosen for the second spot in 1944 almost certainly would be the next president of the United States, through either FDR's death or resignation due to illness. Current Vice President Henry A. Wallace, a liberal who had dabbled in mysticism and mediums, had fallen into general disfavor, particularly in the South and with Democratic party leaders and city bosses. He retained favor only with the liberal and labor wings of the party.(3) Douglas, on the other hand, had a proven record as an able New Dealer, and many Roosevelt insiders saw him as the heir apparent to the president. …

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