Harlan Fiske Stone

Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, at first could not be classified either as conservative or liberal but finally stood with the liberal justices.

Harlan Fiske Stone was born in Chesterfield, N.H., on Oct. 11, 1872. The family soon moved to Amherst, Mass. Harlan's father was a farmer, and the sons did the typical farm chores.

Stone attended public school in Amherst and then, after 2 years of high school, enrolled in the Massachusetts Agricultural College. He led his fellow students in a number of pranks; for one of these he was expelled. He was accepted by Amherst College, graduating in 1894. He was bent on a career in medicine. At Amherst he tutored other students and sold typewriters and insurance. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was business manager of the school paper, and played on the football team. Somewhere along the way, he gave up the idea of medicine for a career in law. To earn the money for law school, he taught high school science. In 1896 he entered the Columbia University School of Law, supporting himself by teaching history. In June 1898 he received his law degree and soon passed his bar examinations.

Stone joined the well-known New York City legal firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, later moving to another firm. He married Agnes Harvey in 1899, and the couple had two sons.

Law School Dean and Attorney General

In his early days in practice Stone supplemented his income by lecturing at Columbia School of Law. He became a professor in 1902, resigning in 1905 to give full time to the firm of Satterlee, Canfield and Stone. Stone appeared to be perfectly content making money until, in 1910, he became dean of the Columbia School of Law. The work as dean was most rewarding. Stone managed to continue his law practice, teach, and also advise and counsel students. He was one of the most loved and revered Columbia professors of that day.

This so-called conservative lawyer proved to be most liberal in defending his faculty. When the university decided to dismiss two professors because of their pacifist speeches, he worked out a settlement between the teachers and Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler. Stone was much upset by the U.S. attorney general's "Red raids."

Yet there were too many examples of Stone's conservatism to convince his fellow faculty members that he was in any way liberal. His courses in personal property, mortgages, and equity law were geared conservatively. In 1923 his conservatism seemed confirmed when he resigned as dean to become a partner in the Sullivan and Cromwell firm. During the next year he handled corporation and estate work. In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge, who had known Stone in Amherst, named him U.S. attorney general. The appointment was well received by the banking and business community.

As U.S. attorney general, Stone moved quickly to rid the department of those involved in the "Red scare" regime. He also made an appointment that years later would remain controversial when he made J. Edgar Hoover head of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Stone also moved against the Aluminum Corporation of America as a violator of the antitrust laws. This corporation was under control of the family of Andrew Mellon, who was then secretary of the treasury. Before this case could be readied for court, President Coolidge named Stone an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice

Stone's new appointment ran into some difficulties. Some people suggested that he was pushed onto the Court to get him out of the attorney general's office. However, the appointment was confirmed. On the bench Stone moved slowly. Justice Louis Brandeis, a liberal, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, tried to give Stone a much broader view of the Constitution. In time the liberals on the Court were considered to be Brandeis, Holmes, Stone, and later Benjamin Cardozo.

The question of the constitutionality of many of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal laws eventually confronted the Supreme Court. Stone met these challenges and remained liberal in his thinking. He concurred in the Court's decision on the unconstitutionality of the National Recovery Administration. He supported the majority in the famous NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937), which preserved the National Labor Relations law.

With Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes's resignation in 1941, President Roosevelt named Stone to the position. However, Stone is remembered for his work as an associate justice rather than for his achievements as chief justice because, as presiding officer, he was unable to head the Court as efficiently as had his predecessor. Stone looked upon the Constitution as a broad charter of government. He summed up his philosophy by stating: "I have nothing personally against the world in which I grew up. That world has always made me very comfortable. But I don't see why I should let my social predilections interfere with experimental legislation that is not prohibited in the Constitution."

One of the most important pieces of New Deal legislation was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. It was inevitable that the Supreme Court would be asked to rule on its constitutionality. In U.S. v. Butler (1936) a majority of the Court declared the AAA constitutional. Justice Stone wrote a strong dissenting opinion. He revealed his conception of judicial functions when he declared: "The power of courts to declare a statute unconstitutional is subject to two guiding principles of decision which ought never to be absent from judicial consciousness. One is that courts are concerned only with the power to enact statutes, not with their wisdom. The other is that while unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive and legislative branches of the government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of self-restraint."

Stone was not a colorful figure, but he was a human one. He died in Washington on April 22, 1946. If one was to seek among Stone's utterances for a phrase that would summarize his contributions, it might be: "… the Constitution has not adopted any particular set of social and economic ideas, to the exclusion of others, which however wrong they seemed to me, fair-minded men might yet hold."

Further Reading on Harlan Fiske Stone

The best general study of Stone is Alpheus Mason, Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law (1956). An excellent survey of Stone as chief justice is in Alpheus Mason, The Supreme Court from Taft to Warren (1958). A complete discussion of Stone's dissent in U.S. v. Butler is in Walter F. Murphy, Congress and the Courts: A Case Study in the American Political Process (1962). Kenneth Urmbreit brings the man into focus in Our Eleven Chief Justices: A History of the Supreme Court in Terms of Their Personalities (1942).

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