Edward D White


Edward Douglass White was born on November 3, 1845, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His father died suddenly in 1847, but left his wife and five children with a prosperous sugar-beet plantation which provided them with financial security. When White was six years old, he was sent to a convent school in New Orleans. He went to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to attend Mount Saint Mary, a Jesuit preparatory school. White became a student at Georgetown College (now University), but his education was interrupted by the Civil War. He returned to the South, enlisted in the Confederate Army, but was released after suffering from illness and starvation during the siege and battle at Port Hudson, Louisiana in 1863. After the end of the war, he went to New Orleans to study law. White took courses at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University), passed the Louisiana bar in 1868 and began to practice law.
In 1874, White won election to the state Senate, and was appointed to the Louisiana Supreme Court because of his support for the successful gubernatorial election of Francis T. Nicholls. White lost his seat on the Court, however, when Nicholls’ successor passed a minimum age requirement which disqualified the thirty-five-year-old judge. White spent the next several years focusing on private legal practice, and taking part in projects such as the establishment of Tulane University in 1884. White spoke fluent French, and lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
After serving as Nicholls’ campaign manager in the former governor’s successful 1888 attempt to regain the office, White was appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. In the middle of fierce debate in the Senate over a tariff reform bill in February 1894, White was summoned to the White House. White, who expected to discuss the bill with President Grover Cleveland, was surprised to be offered a nomination to the US Supreme Court. Despite his nomination, White maintained support for the tariff increases, in opposition to the White House, and helped defeat the President’s tariff reform legislation in his last weeks in the Senate.
In March 1894, at the age of forty-eight, he left the Senate and took his place on the Court. A few months later, in November, he was successful in his twenty-year campaign to win the hand of Virginia Montgomery Kent in marriage. White had no children, but enjoyed them and often carried candy in his pocket to give to the children he encountered.
On the Court, White worked to uphold states rights against federal intervention. However, he supported the federal government’s right to levy a national income tax, voting in the dissenting minority when the Court struck down the 1895 congressional act imposing an income tax. His view was held by Congress and much of the public, and the Sixteenth Amendment was passed in 1913 to allow for the income tax.
Chief Justice Melville Fuller died in July 1910, and President William Howard Taft nominated White to replace him. When White was confirmed that same day, December 12, 1910, he became the first Associate Justice to be promoted directly to the position of Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. He spent ten years as Chief Justice. The most notable legacy of his tenure was the adoption by the Court of the "rule of reason" in antitrust cases. In the 1911 decision to break up the Standard Oil monopoly, White wrote the majority opinion, which held that all monopolies were not illegal. The role of the Court, however, was to restrict only those monopolies which, in the Court’s opinion, were "unreasonable" or which conspired to restrain trade.
White was not a particularly talented administrator, but was admired for his warmth and approachability. He worked hard to bring about reconciliation within the Court, and used his position to help reconcile post-Civil War North and South. In 1915, White, a former Confederate soldier, succeeded in obtaining unanimous support for striking down the "grandfather clauses" which violated the Fifteenth Amendment by prevented many African-Americans from voting. White’s sense of patriotism led him to support the federal government on the issue of the national draft when the US entered World War I, in opposition to his usual stance of trying to prevent the expansion of the federal government’s powers.
Although he suffered from cataracts for some time, White refused to retire until he was unable to perform his duties. He fell ill, and died six days later in Washington, on May 19, 1921. Within a month of his death, White was succeeded by former President William Howard Taft.