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The Four Horsemen: A Conservative Supreme Court Bloc with Outsized Influence that Resonates in Our Time

February 28, 2024

The Four Horsemen of Supreme Court—not Biblical—lore represented one of the most important blocs of Justices in the history of our constitutional tradition. Their intractable opposition to New Deal legislation and reforms in the 1930s, in favor of an old-style conservatism that embraced laissez-faire economics and the view that the Constitution was an unchanging document in a universe governed by fixed and inexorable laws, marked the Four Horsemen, as contemporary newspapers characterized them, as the most polarizing judicial alliance in the Court’s history.  To the citizenry, they were either heroes engaged in a great mission to save the Constitution and the American way of life from the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fellow liberals, or villains whose antiquated methods of interpretation and rigid conceptions of the roles and powers of government threatened to make permanent the national misery inflicted by the Great Depression.

       The Horsemen—Willis Van Devanter, George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and James McReynolds—gained notoriety as a bloc of Justices, not as individuals. Indeed, in 1972, a scholarly survey of Supreme Court members listed Van Devanter, Butler, and McReynolds as “failures.” Sutherland, viewed as a conservative intellectual, fared better. Their combined work as a coalition, beginning with President William Howard Taft’s appointment of Van Devanter in 1910, President Woodrow Wilson’s appointment of McReynolds in 1914 and the appointments of the others by President Warren G. Harding in 1923, until their retirements in the late 1930s, deserves better public understanding—if not because of their hostility to the New Deal, which led to President Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan in 1937, then because their brand of judging and constitutional interpretation resonates, a century later, with the controlling majority on the current U.S. Supreme Court. 

      The fascinating story of the rise and influence of the Four Horsemen, and the debate about constitutional interpretation that they set in motion with their fierce resistance to—or what former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in lawn tennis language once described as their “unsympathetic attitude” toward—the New Deal, is understood against a backdrop of their ideological values, jurisprudential approaches, and political beliefs, as well as the twists and turns of historical events and factors. The conjunction of the Justices’ views about government, politics, and the meaning of the Constitution was less important in the 1920s, when conventional conservative thought was dominant—buttressed, as it was, by a general fear of the spread of communism and the presidencies and policies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—than it was when those factors suddenly provided legal and constitutional opposition to governmental programs, policies and overall efforts in the 1930s designed to lift the country from the depths of the Depression. Almost overnight, it seemed to many, the Four Horsemen rode again.

     The Four Horsemen were men with different spirits, temperaments, and demeanors, but they were united by political ideology and their education in the 1880s, at a time when Darwinism and its social application in the writings of Herbert Spencer, which rejected the validity of governmental intervention on behalf of individuals to promote a better “quality of life” for citizens, leaving them on their own to fight their own battles, earn their own way and negotiate, if they could, their own wages and safer, cleaner working conditions. They were unified, moreover, as lawyers and future judges, by their commitment to the jurisprudence of the iconic conservative Justice Stephen Field, who believed in inalienable and ironclad property rights, secured by the Constitution against interference by either state or federal government. The chief function of the judiciary, they believed, was to protect the unchanging Constitution against misguided efforts of an uneducated populace.

     The emergence of the Four Horsemen reflected the handiwork and vision of William Howard Taft, the lone American to have served as President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft is without historical peer in influencing the appointment of Justices and lower federal court judges. His lifelong commitment to the judiciary, which featured his own preference to be Chief Justice rather than a U.S. President, fueled his desire to shape courts throughout the land. He promoted candidates and blocked others, through his influence in the Republican Party and his widely admired knowledge of those whom he thought should be judges. Republican presidents in the 1920s deferred to his judgment. Taft, also a devotee of Justice Field’s discernible brand of jurisprudence, dubbed “Fieldian Jurisprudence,” sought men who would promote that tradition.

    As president, Taft enjoyed the opportunity of finding men with those credentials. He also hoped to find in those potential nominees men of “long political experience,” because he understood that judges are affected by the “times in which they live.” His first appointments—Charles Evans Hughes and Edward White—were distinguished public servants. In 1910, the death of Justice David Brewer provided Taft with a vacancy, one that he wished to fill with a Westerner. Despite some reservations, Taft nominated Willis Van Devanter of Wyoming, who became the first of the Four Horsemen. We turn next week to the backgrounds and appointments of the other three Horsemen—Sutherland, Butler, and McReynolds—and how they became a historically important bloc on the Supreme Court.

-David Adler