The Rebel Soldier Who Became Chief Justice of the United States: The Civil War and Its Legacy for Edward Douglass White of Louisiana
Forthcoming in American Journal of Legal History (2016)
64 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2015 Last revised: 26 Jan 2016
Date Written: December 15, 2015
Edward Douglass White (1844-1921) was appointed associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894 when he was a sitting U.S. senator, and was elevated to chief justice in 1910. Given his background — White was a Democrat, Confederate veteran, sugar planter, and lawyer from New Orleans, and son of a Louisiana governor — one would have expected White to share the legal and political views of others of his background, class, and region, which were generally hostile to federal power and fervently in favor of white supremacy. Yet White was a nationalist on the Supreme Court. He was considered a de facto Republican by many prominent northern Republicans, and was elevated to the chief’s seat by William Howard Taft. As a justice White voted repeatedly to uphold expansive uses of Congress’s regulatory and taxing powers, including powers first exercised by the Union during the Civil War to tax income and raise armies by conscription. White did not have enlightened racial views, and joined the majority of the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson and other decisions that denied equal rights to African-Americans. But he also wrote the Court’s decisions holding unconstitutional that so-called “grandfather clauses” that were used in the South after the war to prevent African-Americans from voting, and voted in favor of civil rights in other important cases.
Previous biographers have recognized the importance of White’s experience as a Confederate soldier to his life and later judicial and political outlook. But the details they have published about White’s military service have been only brief and vague, and sometimes simply wrong. Relying on a far broader array of original and secondary sources than any previous study, this paper explores what exactly White did, saw, and experienced during the Civil War. Crucially, though, the story is also one about omissions and even deception by White. A newly-discovered document shows that he lied to Federal interrogators about his war service when he was captured in 1865. In later life White rarely spoke of the war, and when he did he offered almost no details about his service. He failed to correct the record when inaccurate biographical details about his service were published. His actual war service was almost certainly much less extensive and honorable than previous biographers have claimed. The most detailed information we possess shows him joining a marauding guerrilla band in rural Louisiana in the closing months of the war.
Later in life, the one thing that White clearly and honestly expressed about the war was deep regret that it occurred at all, anguish about its human toll and effect on his beloved country, and self-criticism about his youthful service on the Confederate side. This picture that emerges of White and his war service is much more complex than offered in previous biographical studies, and provides a surer foundation for assessing his life and judicial work, and accurately understanding his place in the country’s political and legal history.
Keywords: Chief Justice of the United States, Civil War, Supreme Court, Edward Douglass White
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