Edward Douglas White Jr. was born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on November 3, 1845. His father was the 10th governor of Louisiana while his paternal grandfather was a United States representative. His maternal grandfather Trench Ringgold was a United States Marshal in Washington D.C. Therefore, it is not surprising that Edward Douglas White Jr. ended up being a politician.
Education Interrupted by Civil War
Edward White Jr. first attended the Jesuit College of New Orleans before transferring to Mount St. Mary’s College and later to Georgetown University where he was an early member of the Philodemic Society.
While he was a student at Georgetown, the Civil War broke out. He returned to Louisiana and served in the military. While it is open to debate, exactly where he served, he became a lieutenant. He was captured by the Union Army on March 12, 1865, and held in New Orleans until April 1, 1865.
After the war ended, White returned to his studies eventually getting his law degree from the University of Louisiana. He opened a law practice in New Orleans in 1868.
Louisiana State Political Life
White was successfully elected to the Louisiana State Senate in 1874. His time in the state Senate coincided with attempts by 1,500 members of the White League to overthrow the elected state government. The White League strongly believed that only white people should have the right to vote and to hold office. During the resulting violence in the streets of New Orleans, 13 policemen were killed. With Governor Kellogg in hiding, President Ulysses S. Grant sent the United States militia into New Orleans to remove the White League from the city on September 14, 1874.
White continued serving in the Louisiana State Senate until he was appointed to the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1879, he was appointed by Governor Kellogg to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court. Among the most controversial decisions made by the court during his tenure was finding the Louisiana Lottery corrupt. White’s first year on the court coincided with the first time that the Supreme Court was given power over the Courts of Appeal, District Courts, and Justices of the Peace.
When the governor lost reelection, however, White’s term on the Louisiana Supreme Court was cut short when the legislature enacted a law saying that all justices had to be at least 35 years old. White was only 33, so he returned to practicing law which he did until he was appointed to the United States Senate in 1891 to succeed James B. Eustis.
National Political Life
Edward White Jr. served in the United States Senate from 1891 to 1894. He aligned himself with people opposing the People’s Party. The People”s Party believed that national banks should be abolished, which was a move that White strongly opposed. White also did not support the party’s ideas that there should be a graduated income tax. White delayed accepting his appointment from President Grover Cleveland to become the United States Associate Justice until after the passage of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act.
The Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act, also called the Income Tax Act of 1894, was important to White who represented sugar farmers in Louisiana because it lowered or reduced the tariffs on sugar, coal, lumber, and wool. In place of the money that the federal government was receiving on these products, it instituted a 2 percent federal income tax. This was the first time that an income tax was charged since the end of the Civil War.
While in the Senate, White served as the Chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expenses which would eventually become the Committee on Rules and Administration.
Finally, on March 12, 1894, Edward Douglas White Jr. accepted his appointment from President Cleveland to become a United States Associate Justice. When White arrived on the court, the Supreme Justice was Melville W. Fuller. One of the first cases heard by the court was the United States V. E.C. Knight. At that time, American Sugar had purchased four companies giving them control of 95 percent of the national sugar production. The United States Supreme Court found that the United States Congress could only control the buying, selling, and transportation of goods between states and not between private individuals. This swiftly curtailed the powers of the Sherman Act that Congress had passed in 1890.
White also had to face the bill that he stayed in the United States Senate to see passed struck down the United States Supreme Court. The law was found unconstitutional saying that the Congress had no right to tax citizens. This law, however, became one of the hot topics during the United States president’s race of 1896.
Many Southern states had started passing Jim Crow laws allowing them to keep races separate. The Supreme Court ruled that as long as conditions were equal, states were within their jurisdiction to pass these laws in Plessy v. Ferguson.
As Edward White Jr.’s time as an associate supreme court judge drew to a close, the Supreme Court started hearing trust-busting cases Circuit Judge William Howard Taft argued that Addyson Company conspired to fix prices in 36 states before they would sell pipe to customers. The United States Supreme Court agreed to set in motion the steps that ended in the breaking up of Standard Oil’s monopoly.
While White was focused on his work, he also found time for some private romance marrying Leita Montgomery Kent on November 6, 1894.
Supreme Justice Edward Douglas White Jr.
With the case against Standard Oil fresh in everyone’s mind, President Grover Cleveland broke with tradition by appointing White the Supreme Justice in 1910. White had long been seen as a proponent of the rule of reason. This became the idea behind almost every decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court over the next 11 years while White presided
One of the hottest topics heard by the court involved child labor. A father with two sons working in New York textile mills argued that he needed the children’s wages to help him support his large family. The state argued that putting children to work was against interstate commerce laws. The court agreed with the father that he had a right to his sons” wages, but ultimately, the United States Congress passed a law placing a high tariff on goods manufactured by children. This quickly puts an end to child labor in many places in the United States.
As everyone’s attention turned to World War I, the United States government rounded up over 2,000 people for speaking out against the country’s involvement in the war. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear an espionage case as long as the war continued. The court found that the United States Congress could not stop all efforts to change people’s minds that did not agree with them.
While still in office, Supreme Justice Edward S. White Jr. died on May 19, 1921. He was buried in Washington D.C.