‘People’s Lawyer’ Louis Brandeis: 1st Jewish Supreme Court Justice

On 1 June 1916, President Woodrow Wilson achieved one of his greatest political triumphs when his controversial nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, was confirmed as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. Brandeis, whose brilliant legal mind was acknowledged by even his staunchest opponents, had built such a successful private law practice that he was able to devote himself to supporting public causes – for which he adamantly refused any compensation.

photo of Louis Brandeis, c. 1916

Photo: Louis Brandeis, c. 1916. Credit: Harris and Ewing; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

He became a fierce legal opponent of monopolies, large corporations and public corruption; an advocate for social reform; and a protector of workers’ rights and working conditions. He also helped pioneer a concept that has become extremely important in today’s world: the right to privacy.

In a speech Brandeis gave at his alma mater Harvard University in 1905, he said:

Instead of holding a position of independence, between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people. We hear much of the ‘corporation lawyer,’ and far too little of the ‘people’s lawyer.’ The great opportunity of the American Bar is and will be to stand again as it did in the past, ready to protect also the interests of the people.

As a crusading “people’s lawyer,” Brandeis won many legal victories for working people and the general public, and worked hard to support Woodrow Wilson during the presidential campaign of 1912 – and later, helped President Wilson formulate his ideas on how to combat monopolies and regulate large corporations. As a consequence of all this judicial and political activism, Brandeis earned the enmity of conservative Republicans and powerful, wealthy businessmen.

Therefore, it was not surprising that when President Wilson nominated Brandeis for the Supreme Court on 29 January 1916, the nomination was controversial and met with a great deal of opposition. After Brandeis retired from the Supreme Court on 13 February 1939, his successor, Justice William O. Douglas, wrote of the opposition to Brandeis’s confirmation:

Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible.

Douglas also acknowledged one of the strong undercurrents in the opposition to Brandeis’s confirmation: the fact that he was a Jew. As Douglas wrote:

The fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.

Traditionally, confirmation of Supreme Court nominees had been a matter of a straightforward up-or-down vote in the Senate, usually held on the same day the president submitted the nomination. However, the controversy over Brandeis changed everything. For the first time ever, the Senate Judiciary Committee held public hearings on the nomination, and 47 witnesses testified during a confirmation process that took an unprecedented four months to complete. Bitter opposition came from such famous figures as former President William Howard Taft, who would himself go on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on 11 July 1921, and former presidents of the American Bar Association.

Even the head of Brandeis’s alma mater, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, opposed his confirmation, even though Lowell was in many ways a fellow progressive – and Brandeis had been one of the most brilliant students in Harvard University’s history, graduating in 1877 at the age of 20 as valedictorian, with the highest grade point average in the school’s history (a record that took eight decades to break). The reason for Lowell’s opposition is revealed, perhaps, when one remembers that one of his more controversial efforts was an attempt to limit Jewish enrollment at Harvard to 15% of the student body. Anti-Semitism was an unspoken but strong factor in the opposition to Brandeis.

When all the wrangling was done, the full Senate confirmed Brandeis by a vote of 47 to 22 on 1 June 1916. During a 23-year career as a Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis continued to be the “people’s lawyer,” especially in the areas of freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and he earned a legacy as one of the Court’s greatest justices.

article about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Boston Journal newspaper article 2 June 1916

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 June 1916, page 1

This old newspaper article reported:

Washington, June 1.—The nomination of Louis D. Brandeis of Boston to the Supreme Court to succeed the late Joseph Rucker Lamar, was confirmed by the Senate today by a vote of 47 to 22. The vote, taken without debate, ended one of the bitterest contests ever waged against a presidential nominee. Mr. Brandeis will be the first Jew to occupy a seat on the Supreme bench.

One Democrat in Opposition

Only one Democrat, Senator Newlands, voted against confirmation. Three Republicans, Senators La Follette, Norris and Poindexter, voted with the Democratic majority, and Senators Gronna and Clapp would have done so, but were paired with Senators Borah and Kenyon. The negative vote of Senator Newlands was a complete surprise to the Senate, and the Nevada senator, recognizing that his action had aroused comment, later made public a formal explanation.

Newlands Explains Vote

“I have a high admiration for Mr. Brandeis as a publicist and propagandist of distinction,” said Senator Newlands. “I do not regard him as a man of judicial temperament, and for that reason I have voted against his confirmation.”

Throughout the fight President Wilson stood firmly behind his nominee, never wavering even when it seemed certain that an unfavorable report would be returned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before the committee voted he wrote a letter to Chairman Culberson, strongly urging prompt and favorable action.

The new justice was born 60 years ago in Louisville, Ky., graduated from Harvard University in 1877 and began the practice of law in Boston after admission to the bar in 1878. He probably will take the oath of office June 13, a week from Monday, just before the Court adjourns for the summer recess.

Nomination Sent in Jan. 29

The nomination of Mr. Brandeis was sent to the Senate Jan. 29. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, and immediately a flood of protests against confirmation and memorials in favor thereof began to pour in.

A sub-committee consisting of Senators Chilton, Fletcher, Walsh, Cummins and Works was appointed to report on the nomination. It adopted the unusual course of holding public hearings. Clifford Thorns, railroad commissioner of Iowa, was the first witness, protesting against confirmation on the ground that Mr. Brandeis had been guilty of unprofessional conduct in handling the 8 per cent. rate advance case before the Interstate Commerce Commission. Sidney W. Winslow, president of the United Shoe Machinery Company, testified that Mr. Brandeis had been guilty of unprofessional conduct in relation to his company, and shortly thereafter Austin G. Fox, a New York attorney, appeared before the committee as the representative of 85 citizens of Boston, headed by A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, and took charge of the opposition. Then United States District Attorney George W. Anderson of Boston, at the request of the committee, undertook direction of the case for those favoring confirmation.

47 Witnesses Testified

In all, 47 witnesses were heard and 1,500 pages of testimony taken. William H. Taft, Simeon E. Baldwin, Francis Rawle, Joseph H. Choate, Elihu Root, Moorfield Storey and Peter W. Meldrim, all former presidents of the American Bar Association, wrote protests to the committee against confirmation, and Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard, and many others wrote in favor of confirmation.

On April 3 the sub-committee, by a strict party vote, recommended confirmation, and on May 14 the full committee agreed to a favorable report by another strict party division.

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Researching Your Pilgrim Ancestry from Mayflower Ship Passengers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post—just in time for Thanksgiving—Mary searches old newspapers to trace ancestry all the way back to the Pilgrims, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on board the Mayflower in 1620 for a fresh start in the New World.

Although endlessly rewarding, it is true that tracing ancestry is a time-consuming process requiring much patience—especially if one wishes to connect to the Mayflower passengers, those 102 Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden, Holland, in September 1620 bound for the New World—anchoring off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in November 1620.

Painting: Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882

Painting: Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum & Wikipedia.

Tragically, only half the Plymouth Rock settlers survived their first winter in the New World—and if any are your progenitors, you could conceivably be required to compile from 12-18 generations of documentary evidence to trace your Pilgrim ancestry and prove you are a descendant. Fortunately, there are many ways to research the Mayflower voyage and the Pilgrims, even if you can’t visit Leiden or Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts (although please put these stops on your genealogical travel shortlist).

I traveled to Leiden, Holland, several years ago to conduct first-hand research on my Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry, and found this Dutch marriage record for future Mayflower ship passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris from 1611.

marriage certificate for future Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris, 1611

Marriage certificate for future Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris, 1611, from the collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

However, as I say, you don’t need to travel to research your Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry—you can do it from the comfort of your own home, relying on your computer and the Internet, using several helpful websites and having access to online historical newspapers.

Common genealogical advice suggests that you start your family history research with yourself and work backwards to prove ancestry. However, with Mayflower genealogy research, you might want to work “down the research ladder,” instead of up, as it could very well save you a few steps.

Approved List of Mayflower Ship Passengers

Start at the top of your family tree by looking for surnames matching Mayflower passengers, shown on the accepted list of eligible ancestors compiled by Pilgrim lineage societies, most notably the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (www.themayflowersociety.com/).

John Alden Bartholomew Allerton Isaac Allerton
Mary (Norris) Allerton Mary Allerton Remember Allerton
Elinor Billington Francis Billington John Billington
William Bradford Love Brewster Mary Brewster
William Brewster Peter Browne James Chilton
Mrs. James Chilton Mary Chilton Francis Cooke
John Cooke Edward Doty Francis Eaton
Samuel Eaton Sarah Eaton Moses Fletcher
Edward Fuller Mrs. Edward Fuller Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller (son of Edward) Constance Hopkins Elizabeth (Fisher) Hopkins
Giles Hopkins Stephen Hopkins John Howland
Richard More Priscilla Mullins William Mullins
Degory Priest Joseph Rogers Thomas Rogers
Henry Samson George Soule Myles Standish
Elizabeth Tilley John Tilley Joan (Hurst) Tilley
Richard Warren Peregrine White Resolved White
Susanna White William White Edward Winslow

Publications by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

And if that surname research strategy fails, research Mayflower descendants to the fifth generation to try and find a match to your family. Many publications exist, including the famous pink or gray Pilgrim lineage books published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants—many of which are available at libraries. As accepted references, these Society publications allow you to bypass submitting proofs for any Mayflower descendant they’ve already established.

photo of publications from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

Credit: from the library of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

The silver books trace the first five generations of Mayflower descendants.

The smaller pink books are Mayflower Families in Progress (MFIP), and are produced as new information becomes available.

Newspaper Evidence for Peregrine (or Peregrin) White and His Descendants

An extraordinary amount of newspaper articles and obituaries mentioning Mayflower ancestry exist in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

Although not my Mayflower ancestor, I’m fascinated by Peregrine White. He was the son of William and Susanna White, who crossed the ocean on the Mayflower with his older brother Resolved. Susanna was pregnant with Peregrine during the Atlantic crossing, and he became the first Plymouth Colony baby of English ancestry when he was born on 20 November 1620 on board the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peregrine_White.)

After William White died—as so many did, during the Colony’s first winter—Susanna married widower Edward Winslow, of whom much is written. After reaching manhood, Peregrine married Sarah Bassett, and if you are one of their descendants, you have a multitude of cousins.

One of your relatives is their grandson George Young (1689-1771), son of their daughter Sarah White (1663-1755) and Thomas Young (1663-1732).

George Young’s lineage was noted in this 1771 obituary.

death notice for George Young, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 13 May 1771

Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1771, page 3

Being such a small colony of settlers, the Mayflower Pilgrim’s children intermarried. As reported in this 1821 newspaper article, John Alden was a descendant of his grandfather by the same name—and also of Peregrine White, via his grandmother. He is thought to have married twice, first to Lydia Lazell and later to Rebecca Weston, although neither of his wives are mentioned in this obituary. Note how many of John Alden’s descendants were living when he died at the ripe old age of 103.

obituary for John Alden, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 12 April 1821

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 12 April 1821, page 3

Elder James White, who founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan, was another direct descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims. His religious affiliation and his Mayflower ancestry were reported in this 1881 newspaper obituary.

obituary for Elder James White, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 9 August 1881

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 9 August 1881, page 1

Reporting Trend in Pilgrim Descendants’ Obituaries

Do you notice a trend in these obituaries? The importance of being a descendant of a Mayflower passenger tends to overshadow all other aspects of an individual’s life!

For example, Ellen Gould Harmon was the spouse of Elder James White—and her obituary from 1915 makes more notice of his roots than her own.

obituary for Ellen White, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 17 July 1915

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 17 July 1915, page 1

Are You My Mayflower Cousin?

Although I have not located Peregrine White ancestry in my own family tree, if you trace to any of the following Mayflower passengers, then you and I are cousins:

  • William Brewster and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • Giles Hopkins and Catherine Whelden
  • Stephen Hopkins and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley
photo of the gravesite of Giles Hopkins

Photo: Grave of Giles Hopkins, Cove Burying Ground (Eastham, Massachusetts). Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

We are in good company. By 1909, one writer’s conservative estimate calculated that by the 10th generation, any of the Mayflower ship passengers could have had at least 3,500,000 descendants! Since most Mayflower descendants are now of the 13th, 14th, 15th or 16th generation, that number has skyrocketed.

The rising number of Mayflower Pilgrim descendants is reported in this 1909 newspaper article.

article about descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 18 December 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 18 December 1909, page 8

If you think you are a Mayflower ship passenger descendant, this article from the New England Historic Genealogical Society may be of interest:

“The Society of Mayflower Descendants: Who they are, where to find them, how to apply”


For tips on how to research your Mayflower genealogy using GenealogyBank visit: http://blog.genealogybank.com/tag/mayflower

Have you traced your ancestry back to one of the Mayflower ship passengers? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section. We’d love to know who your Mayflower ancestors are.