The fourth Tennessean to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, James C. McReynolds was born in Elkton, Kentucky, on February 3, 1862. His father was a surgeon and plantation owner, and the family belonged to a fundamentalist sect of the Disciples of Christ church. The isolation of the mountain community where young James grew up, the political and religious conservatism of his father, and the strict moral code to which he was subjected all profoundly influenced him.
At age seventeen he entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he excelled in science, edited the school paper, and graduated first in his class. He began postgraduate work in science, but soon left to attend law school at the University of Virginia. McReynolds was such a diligent and enthusiastic student of the law that he graduated in only fourteen months.
Following graduation in 1884 he spent two years in Washington as a staff assistant to Senator Howell E. Jackson of Tennessee (who was to be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1893). McReynolds established a law practice in Nashville in 1886. Ten years later he was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. It was said that his arrogance and aloofness contributed to his political defeat.
In 1900 McReynolds became a professor of law at Vanderbilt University; one of his colleagues there was Horace Lurton, who would be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1909. He was appointed assistant attorney general by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 and soon gained a reputation as a zealous and effective “trust buster.” In 1907 he left government to practice law for a time in New York City but returned to Tennessee after a few years and resumed his involvement in politics. He supported Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1912 and was appointed attorney general in the new president’s cabinet.
McReynolds was eminently qualified to be attorney general, but his violent temper and abrasive personality soon began to create problems for the president. When his fellow Tennessean, Justice Lurton, died in 1914, Wilson seized the opportunity to solve two problems at once by appointing McReynolds to the U.S. Supreme Court.
McReynolds served twenty-six years on the nation’s highest court and became well known for his inflexibility, his narrow constructionist views, and his utter failure to get along with his colleagues. He was especially intolerant of Justices Cardozo and Brandeis and became a bitter enemy of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. McReynolds strongly opposed the growing economic regulatory power of the federal government. He authored several significant decisions in the field of civil liberties. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), for instance, McReynolds invoked the doctrine of substantive due process to invalidate a state law requiring that all children attend public school. He resigned from the Court in 1941 after becoming the sole surviving member of the conservative bloc. He died of bronchial pneumonia in a Washington hospital on August 24, 1946, and was buried in Elkton, Kentucky.
It is unfortunate that an acerbic personality and a lack of social graces marred McReynolds’s career. After his death many were surprised to learn that he had supported almost three dozen young refugee children during World War II and that he had been a substantial contributor to other children’s charities.
James E. Bond, I Dissent: The Legacy of Chief Justice James Clark McReynolds (1992); Melvin I. Urofsky, The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary (1994)