Thesis Title

The Social and Political Philosophy of Justice Pierce Butler

Graduation Date

Summer 1944

Document Type

Master's Thesis

Document Form


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Degree Granting Institution

Catholic University of America

Program Name



It was with no small degree of skepticism that the writer approached the study of Associate Justice Pierce Butler’s Supreme Court decisions. She shared the prevailing opinion that Justice Butler’s contribution to American history was a merely negative one and that his conservatism was somewhat antiquated and unenlightened. This opinion was not altered to any extent y periodical accounts of a biographical nature, nor through an examination of the decisions of his first few years in the Supreme Court, for he was a conservative thoroughly at home in the conservative Taft Court of the 1920’s and his opinions followed the traditions of almost a century. There was little to inspire or even interest one from the historical point of view in his majority opinions and rare dissent during the years 1923-1928. The heavy legal phrasing and repetition of ideas seemed to disguise the political and social philosophy underlying his views. But one aspect of the study compelled continued reading of the Reports. It was to discover, if possible, why a man who had come up from obscure poverty to wealth and influence through personal initiative and hard work should seem to uphold a political and economic tradition that would deny the same privileges to the vast majority. His apparent championship of capitalistic interests granted his sincerity and integrity, seemed to be in conflict with eh viewpoint one should expect to develop out of a background such as his. There appeared to be two conclusions: either he believed that concentration of wealth and the resulting economic maladjustment was inevitable and not necessarily evil development in a democratic system, or that he had achieved prestige and wealth through his association with corporation interests as a railroad lawyer and had pledged his support in the court to their cause. The latter conclusion seemed unworthy of any Supreme Court Justice and it was with the conviction that it could not be true of Justice Butler that the work was continued. As the decisions written from 1930-1940 were studied, and particularly his writings on questions of civil liberties, a conviction grew that the conclusions stated in the last chapter of this work are a more worthy judgement of his work than is the prevailing public opinion.

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