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He received his law degree from the Department of Law of the University of Virginia in 1884. Returning to Nashville, Tenn., he began the practice of law and also served as a member of the faculty of the Vanderbilt Law School. He achieved a considerable reputation by his zeal, diligence and ability in the practice there. In 1903 Philander C. Knox, Republican Attorney General, was looking for a $30,000-a-year lawyer who would work for $5,000. A friend gave him the name of James Clark McReynolds but warned that he was a Democrat. Mr. Knox said that he wanted a lawyer, not a politician, and he made the young Tennessee lawyer Assistant Attorney General and put him in charge of antitrust prosecutions. In this position McReynolds remained from 1903 to 1907 and successfully prosecuted many important cases. Thereafter he practiced for several years in New York City.
Later he came back to the Department of Justice as Special Assistant to the Attorney General and successfully prosecuted and argued in the Supreme Court the celebrated American Tobacco Company case, which was argued in January 1910, reargued in January 1911, and decided on May 29, 1911, and the famous Temple Iron Company case, decided December 16, 1912.
He served as Attorney General in President Wilson's cabinet in 1913 and 1914, in which position he had a stormy and controversial career. He was bitterly attacked by a group of Senators led by Senator Borah and Senator Works on a charge that he maintained a corps of special agents operating a system of espionage to investigate Federal judges with a view to influencing their decisions. A Senate resolution called on him for information regarding the matters charged, “so far as not incompatible with the public interest.” He made a report to the President on August 6, 1913, transmitted also to the Senate, in which he took an unyielding position. He described the kind of investigating agents he maintained. He said that the disclosure of their names would be in
compatible with the public interest. On the same ground he refused to name any judge who had been investigated, except Judge Archbald, whose impeachment trial was public property. And he sternly declared, “The suggestion that the Department of Justice is maintaining a system of espionage over the courts and judges of the country is entirely without foundation."
He was nominated Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by President Wilson in August 1914, to succeed Justice Horace Harmon Lurton, who had died July 12, 1914. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 29, 1914. He took the oath of office September 3, 1914. The judicial oath was administered to him and he took his seat on the bench at the opening of the following October Term. His first opinion for the Court was handed down on November 30, 1914; his last on January 20, 1941, twenty-six years and almost two months later.
The personnel of the Court when he took his seat in 1914 was: Chief Justice Edward Douglass White and Associate Justices Joseph McKenna, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William R. Day, Charles Evans Hughes, Willis Van Devanter, Joseph Rucker Lamar, Mahlon Pitney, and James Clark McReynolds.
When he retired on February 1, 1941, the personnel of the Court was: Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (who followed him in retirement on June 2, 1941) and Associate Justices James Clark McReynolds (the senior Justice), Harlan Fiske Stone, Owen J. Roberts, Hugo L. Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Frank Murphy.
His twenty-six years of service on the bench saw the passing from the scene of every member of the Court as constituted when he took his seat, except Charles Evans Hughes, who had returned as Chief Justice after an interval of fourteen years following his resignation to run for the Presidency against Woodrow Wilson, and likewise saw the passing of such intervening famous personalities as George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, and Benjamin N. Cardozo. His career was fittingly epitomized by Chief Justice Hughes when he said, after the opening of the Court on February 3, 1941: “On February 1, 1941, Mr. Justice James Clark McReynolds retired from active service as Associate Justice of this Court. Forthright, independent, maintaining with strength and tenacity of conviction, his conceptions of constitutional right, he has served with distinction upon this bench for upwards of twenty-six years and has left a deep impress upon the jurisprudence of the Court. It is hoped that, relieved of the burden of active service, he will long enjoy his accustomed vigor of body and mind.” After his retirement, Justice McReynolds made his home at 2400 Sixteenth Street N. W., Washington, D. C. He had never married and for many years was the only bachelor on the Court. He had an idiosyncrasy against smoking, which he applied with some rigor against his law clerks and which was generally respected by his guests. Yet he was a charming and gracious host and his Sunday morning breakfasts were famous. He loved duck hunting and golf. He was a great walker. He was a discriminating lover of books and a deep student of history. A revealing side of his character was his gentleness and generosity to the humble and to those in need. During World War II he adopted thirty-three British children, supported them and personally corresponded with every one of them. Cartoons in the press treated the crusty old bachelor Justice as having outdone the old woman who lived in a shoe. His love of children is also shown by his many benefactions to the Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia. He made many unheralded benefactions to charities and to needy individuals during his lifetime, and in his last will and testament he left charitable bequests totaling nearly $190,000 and many additional individual bequests.
After several weeks of illness in Walter Reed Hospital, he died on August 24, 1946, and was buried in the family burial ground in Elkton, Kentucky.
Men will always differ in their views of James Clark McReynolds as they differ in their attitudes toward constitutional questions. But no one can doubt that he was a man of great character and power, a significant figure in a time of great change, unshakable in his devotion to the public welfare as he conceived it and to constitutional principles in which he had the sincerest and profoundest belief.
Resolved, That the foregoing Minute be adopted; that a copy of it be transmitted to the Attorney General of the United States for presentation to the Court, and that the Chairman be directed to forward copies of it to the next of kin of Mr. Justice McReynolds.
MR. ATTORNEY GENERAL CLARK addressed the Court as follows:
Mr. Chief Justice and Associate Justices: As we gather here today I deem it a privilege to speak in memory of the late Mr. Justice James Clark McReynolds, who passed away on August 24, 1946.
Mr. Justice McReynolds was born on February 3, 1862, at Elkton, Kentucky. He was educated in Tennessee, and received the degree of Bachelor of Science with highest honors from Vanderbilt University when barely 20 years of age. Entering the University of Virginia he was graduated from the Department of Law of that institution two years later. He thereupon entered upon the private practice in Nashville, Tenn., serving at the same time as a member of the faculty of the Vanderbilt Law School. His competence and enthusiasm for his work soon became widely known and greatly respected.
In 1903 Attorney General Philander C. Knox recognized in MeReynolds the type of lawyer be was seekinga $30.000-a-year man, as Knox himselí put it, who would work for $5.000 a year. MeReynolds was his man. He becamne Assistant Attorney General and was placed in charge of antitrust prosecutions.
The so-called “trust busting“ era from 1903 to 1907 was the period during which McReynolds held that position. He was unstintingly active in the making of this history. Later he was destined to give completely of himself in assisting in the development of the law on the Bench of this Court.
The late Justice left the Federal service in 1907 and began the practice of law in New York City. In 1913, however, President Wilson invited him to accept the office of Attorney General of the United States, and in March of that year he assumed his duties as head of the Federal Department of Justice. He served in this capacity until he was nominated as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
His activity with regard to the development of antitrust law is especially worthy of note. He prosecuted most of the important antitrust cases of his time. His prosecution and presentation of the case that broke the grip of the Tobacco Trust are said to have been brilliant. He was active in the suit brought against the Reading Company to end monopolistic control of the anthracite coal industry, and he vigorously conducted the New Haven Railroad case that attacked the New England transportation monopoly. He successfully fought the concentration of wire communications in the hands of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and forced the dissolution of the combination created when the Union Pacific Railroad Company acquired control of the Southern Pacific Company.
Perhaps the best known of all the cases with which McReynolds was associated was the famous suit against