McReynolds, James C. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

An isolated and irascible personality, McReynolds developed over the course of his twenty-six years of service into one of the most conservative justices of the twentieth century. As one of the Four Horsemen, he was notorious for his adamant opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal measures.

McReynolds has been characterized by his contemporaries and historians as arrogant, abrasive, nasty, bad-tempered, and thoroughly disagreeable. Chief Justice William H. Taft said McReynolds “seems to delight in making others uncomfortable.” A lifelong bachelor, he was particularly unkind to women. He was also a virulent racist and an anti-Semite, openly offensive to the two JewsJews;and McReynolds, James C.[MacReynolds, James C.] among his fellow justices, Louis D. Brandeis and Benjamin N. Cardozo. By the time he left the Court, he was an isolated and embittered old man.Four HorsemenNew DealWilson, Woodrow;nominations to the CourtFour HorsemenNew Deal

James C. McReynolds

(Library of Congress)

McReynolds was born in rural Kentucky and schooled in private institutions. He graduated from Vanderbilt with honors in 1882 and received his legal training at the University of Virginia. He practiced in Nashville, Tennessee, and taught law for a few years at Vanderbilt. In 1896 he ran for Congress but was defeated. Although he was a Democrat, Republican Theodore Roosevelt appointed him assistant to the attorney general and from 1903 to 1907, McReynolds vigorously pursued the trusts.

After returning to law practice, this time in New York City, he was appointed attorney general of the United States by President Woodrow Wilson. Within a year, he had made numerous enemies as much because of his demeanor as because of his antitrust efforts. On August 19, 1914, Wilson nominated McReynolds to fill the vacant seat on the Court left by the deceased Horace H. Lurton.

In his 1920’s opinions, McReynolds was hostile to government regulation of business, with the notable exception of antitrust cases. He championed the rights of private propertyProperty rights and was not a friend to organized labor but had a curiously mixed record in the area of civil liberties. During the 1930’s, McReynolds joined with justices Willis Van Devanter, George Sutherland, and Pierce Butler to form a solid conservative opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal innovations. These four justices, known as the Four Horsemen, succeeded in overturning critical parts of Roosevelt’s attempt to combat the Great DepressionGreat Depression through legislative experimentation. McReynolds thought Roosevelt was “a fool” and “an utter incompetent.” The attitude of McReynolds and the others led Roosevelt to propose the famous court-packing scheme of 1937. When two of McReynolds’s allies resigned and the third died, he became the lone dissenting voice of reactionary conservatism in a nation that had moved beyond his doctrinaire laissez-faire views. Between 1937 and 1941, he dissented from the majority 119 times. Upon his retirement, he complained that he had tried to protect the United States, but that “any country that elects Roosevelt three times deserves no protection.”McReynolds, James C.[MacReynolds, James C.]

Butler, Pierce

Court-packing plan

New Deal

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Sutherland, George

Van Devanter, Willis

Wilson, Woodrow

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