James Clark McReynolds served on the United States Supreme Court for well over two decades. Although he decided hundreds of judicial rulings during his career, many legal historians today remember him chiefly because of his strenuous opposition to the significant expansion of federal power which occurred during the New Deal Era.
James Clark McReynolds was born on February 3, 1862 in Kentucky. At the time of his birth, his father and uncle both served as Confederate surgeons. Dr. John Oliver McReynolds and his wife Ellen (Reeves) McReynolds lived in a modest wood-frame home in the small town of Elkton, located in Todd County in the southwestern part of the state. Dr. McReynolds reportedly took a brief leave of absence from military service to help deliver his son.
Dr. McReynolds survived the Civil War and returned to Elkton to open a rural medical practice. The McReynolds family attended the Disciples of Christ Church, and the family included an older daughter, Mary Bell.
Before the Civil War, a female academy had operated in Elkton. After the fighting ended, the school began accepting both male and female students. James Clark McReynolds attended Elkton’s Green River Academy as a youth, probably receiving a much better education than many contemporaries. He later traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to attend Vanderbilt University for a year. In 1882, at the age of 20, he graduated first in his class.
Between 1882 and 1884, he attended law school for 14 months at the University of Virginia. That law school remained a conservative educational institution during the 1880s. He achieved high marks and once again graduated at the top of the class. During this period, he studied law under the tutelage of John B. Minor, a professor who just a few years earlier had taught a class of law students which included future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Early Career And Engagement
In 1884, McReynolds returned to Nashville to establish a legal practice. He frequently attended balls and dinner parties there. At one of the dances, he became acquainted with W. Ella Pearson, a student at a local Christian school for young women.
She accepted his marriage proposal the following spring, and the couple planned their wedding. Sadly, during the summer, the young woman contracted typhoid fever and passed away a few weeks later. McReynolds reportedly grieved her loss profoundly, and he remained a lifelong bachelor.
His legal practice in Nashville gradually gained prominence over the next few years. He frequently represented clients in appeals brought before the Tennessee Supreme Court. His arguments impressed some leaders in Nashville’s legal community.
In February, 1893, President Benjamin Harrison nominated Judge Howell Jackson to serve as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. The judge had previously served as a Senator from Tennessee before accepting a position as an appellate court jurist. When he returned to Washington, he asked McReynolds to work as his secretary.
McReynolds accepted the prestigious position. However, an unexpected development occurred soon afterwards when Justice Jackson contracted tuberculosis. His condition worsened rapidly after he became a Supreme Court Justice, and he passed away at his Nashville home in the summer of 1895.
McReynolds returned from Washington and resumed his legal practice in Nashville, but by 1896, he had developed a keen interest in politics. He decided to run for Congress as a Democrat. He led Tennessee’s delegation to the national convention in Indianapolis that year. Democrats nominated populist candidate William Jennings Bryan to run against Republican William McKinley. Despite a vigorous political campaign, both the party standard bearer and McReynolds suffered defeat at the polls.
A Law Professor
McReynolds resumed his legal practice in Nashville, where he had gained some acclaim. In 1900, he received an adjunct appointment to serve as a professor teaching commercial law, insurance, and corporations. He taught law students for three years while also practicing as an attorney.
In 1903, he became an Assistant Attorney General. He served in that capacity for three years before resigning to join a large law firm of Guthrie, Cravath, and Henderson in New York City. McReynolds relocated to the Big Apple, where he began handling many complex business-law cases.
During this period, the federal government frequently pursued antitrust litigation to break up monopolies. It sometimes relied upon outside counsel for expert assistance. McReynolds appears to have represented the government as a private attorney in several high profile economic and trade cases during this period. His legal adversaries in court were prominent attorneys, including Clarence Darrow.
A Cabinet Position
McReynolds welcomed the election of fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. The President selected him to serve in his Cabinet as the Attorney General of the United States. Although he frequently pursued antitrust litigation for the Wilson Administration, McReynolds personally maintained conservative economic and political views. He likely did not always agree with President Wilson or his progressive policies.
Nomination to The Supreme Court
Both men had studied law at the University of Virginia, and President Wilson respected his Attorney General’s legal skills. When a vacancy arose on the United States Supreme Court in 1914 following the death of Justice Horace Harmon Lurton, the President nominated McReynolds for the prestigious, lifelong appointment. The Senate confirmed his selection rapidly.
Service As a Supreme Court Justice
Justice McReynolds sat on the Supreme Court for nearly 27 years between 1914 and 1941. He served under Chief Justices Edward Douglass White, William Howard Taft, and Charles Evans Hughes. The United States Supreme Court addressed numerous legal issues during this period.
Although McReynolds authored over 500 opinions and 157 dissents as a Supreme Court Justice, few of his rulings are viewed as legal milestones today. As a jurist, he is probably most notable for his vigorous opposition to the massive expansion in the size and power of the federal government which occurred during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. This enlargement occurred during the 1930s towards the end of his service on the High Court.
The New Deal Era
The Great Depression saw extreme economic hardship across the United States. Incoming President Roosevelt implemented a series of sweeping economic and social reform measures called “the New Deal.”
Together with Justices Willis Van Devanter, Pierce Butler, and George Sutherland, McReynolds formed a voting block to void many of these measures. The four Justices opposed legislation requiring the payment of minimum wages and other economic reforms. For instance, in U.S. v. Butler, 297 U.S.1 (1936), the Court voted to declare the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional. Justice McReynolds opposed the establishment of the social security system and numerous other New Deal programs. At one point, the Roosevelt Administration tried, and failed, to increase the number of Justices on the Court to break the deadlock.
Ultimately, moderates on the Court began voting with more liberal jurists, and the conservative effort to stop the New Deal failed. Justice McReynolds and his allies on the Court dissented but could no longer void laws which they regarded as an unconstitutional extension of federal power.
Just before his seventy-ninth birthday, Justice McReynolds retired from the Supreme Court in poor health. He passed away on August 24, 1946. His will left his entire estate to charitable causes, including generous amounts to Children’s Hospital in Washington.