The Politics of the Personal: The Defeats of President Cleveland’s Supreme Court Nominees

I previously wrote about Richard Nixon suffering the embarrassment of having two justices he nominated in a row be voted down for confirmation to the Supreme Court. He is not alone in having suffered such an embarrassment. It wasn’t liberals that did this president’s nominees in, rather a party rival who was apt at forming political coalitions, in New York and nationally.
Grover Cleveland was known as a Bourbon Democrat but above all his focus as a president was on honesty and integrity in government, and this meant opposition to bossism. Tammany Hall in New York, however, sure didn’t appreciate Cleveland’s emphasis on reform. Enter the antagonist of our story, Senator David B. Hill. Hill was a Tammany Hall Democrat through and through and had been lieutenant governor while Cleveland was governor of New York from 1883 to 1885. Although Hill was something of a Bourbon Democrat as well, he had differences with him on currency policy, stressing bimetallism while Cleveland supported the gold standard. Hill was also the only Democratic senator to vote against the Wilson-Gorman Tariff in 1894 and was a royal pain for the president on the Supreme Court as well.

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Round One: William B. Hornblower

On September 20, 1893, Cleveland nominated William Butler Hornblower, a prominent corporate attorney from New York, to succeed the late Samuel Blatchford on the Supreme Court. He was a solid pick, but Senator Hill along with his New York colleague Edward Murphy Jr. thought otherwise. Despite Hill having appointed Hornblower to a commission on state constitutional amendments as New York’s governor in 1890, he had crossed Hill when he participated in a committee investigating his ally Deputy Attorney General Isaac H. Maynard for alleged ballot tampering. Hill and Murphy invoked senatorial courtesy, a custom in which the Senate refrains from confirming nominees who are objectionable to the senators of the state they are from. This is especially the case if it is the most senior senator from the president’s party, which Hill was. Hill officially objected because Hornblower was at 42 relatively young for the court. Cleveland chose to proceed with the nomination, but the Senate saw fit to reaffirm custom: the nomination was defeated on January 15, 1894, on a vote of 24-30. Democrats split 18-13 in favor while Republicans voted 6-13 on the matter. The other votes against were from third party members. Cleveland tried again with another person with an even more distinctive name: Wheeler Hazard Peckham.

Round Two: Wheeler Hazard Peckham

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Wheeler Hazard Peckham (I love this name) was another prominent New York jurist and as special prosecutor he had successfully prosecuted William M. “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall and had unsuccessfully done so for New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall. However, like Hornblower, Peckham had crossed Hill. In 1888, he had so strongly disliked Hill as a candidate for governor that he voted for the Republican candidate, Warner Miller. He had also been even more responsible than Hornblower for the investigation into Maynard as he had appointed the committee as President of the New York State Bar. He also could be blunt in his feelings towards those he disliked, which didn’t help him politically. Hill and Murphy again invoked senatorial courtesy and again Cleveland proceeded with the nomination. Curiously, Hill suggested a substitute for Peckham: his younger brother, Rufus Wheeler. His brother was not of a different political persuasion but rather was in Hill’s way where he was, on the New York Court of Appeals. Hill wanted to replace Peckham with his own man. Officially, however, Hill found Wheeler Hazard to be too old at 60. His nomination went down 32-41. Democrats voted for 23-15 while Republicans opposed 8-23. In 1895, Justice Howell Jackson died and Cleveland nominated Rufus Wheeler Peckham, who with the support this time of Senator Hill was confirmed unanimously.

Round Three: Edward Douglass White

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Since Hill and the Senate were being so truculent, President Cleveland decided to make a pick the Senate couldn’t refuse: one of their own, Edward Douglass White of Louisiana. White, a Democrat who had not offended Senator Hill nor being from his state, was easily confirmed. He would eventually serve as chief justice from 1910 to 1921.

Hill’s career in Washington would end alongside Cleveland’s as he lost the 1897 Senate election to Republican political boss Thomas C. Platt, as Republicans had taken control of the New York State Legislature.


William Butler Hornblower. Historical Society of the New York Courts.

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Pomerance, B. (2017). Justices Denied: The Peculiar History of Rejected United States Supreme Court Nominees. Albany Law Review, 80(2).

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Rufus Wheeler Peckham (1838-1909). Albany Rural Cemetery Explorer.

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