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Daniel Chester French’s “Spirit of Life” statue, arguably the most brilliant gem in the civic jewel box known as Congress Park, may obscure the words etched in concrete behind it: “To the Memory of Spencer Trask, His One Object in Life Was to do Right, and to Serve His Fellow Men.”
The memorial was the result of a donation to Saratoga Springs from Trask’s widow, Katrina, herself a writer. But the words nevertheless were from Charles Evans Hughes, a political titan and ally of Spencer’s in the fight for what the two considered the town’s best interests: freedom from gambling and related vices, and full access to the healing waters that had been its first claim to fame.
Hughes, born in Glens Falls in 1862, was something of a child prodigy—reading at three, studying two foreign languages by six. His photographic memory helped get him into Madison University, now Colgate, at 14, after which he transferred to Brown and graduated near the top of his class at 19. The son of a Welch immigrant, he graduated from Columbia Law School with highest honors at 22.
After a law professorship at Cornell and a stint in private practice that saw him sharpen his chops on cases involving corruption and government reform, his political rise was nearly vertical: governor of New York, 1907 to 1910 (he was nominated at, but didn’t attend, the 1906 state Republican convention held in Saratoga); associate justice of the Supreme Court, 1910 to 1916; a near-miss as the Republican candidate for president against incumbent Woodrow Wilson, a fellow progressive, in 1916 (he lost California by 4,000 votes, so lost the Electoral College, 277-254); a weightier law practice before being named Secretary of State by President Harding in 1921 (he negotiated a peace treaty with Germany and withheld U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union); a seat on the Court of International Justice, 1928-30; and apotheosis as the 11th chief justice of the Supreme Court, 1930-1941 (he wrote landmark opinions on freedom of speech and the press).
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Hughes had a major impact at almost every stage of his career, especially as the nation’s top jurist during the tempestuous early days of the New Deal, generally supporting federal power, but voting with majorities that pulled in the reins on FDR from 1932 to 1936, citing Congress’ writing of the laws. After FDR was re-elected in a landslide in 1936, Hughes joined majorities issuing more favorable New Deal rulings, supporting collective bargaining and social security, and successfully opposing Roosevelt’s “packing” of the Supreme Court (FDR proposed adding a new member for any Justice who refused to retire after 70).
As an activist in the fierce Victorian struggle for Saratoga’s soul, Hughes also had a great impact on Saratoga Springs. Would it remain the “Sin City” of gambling, or would it revert to the benign spa of its founding legend?
Both Hughes and Trask had a strong sense of duty, and both felt it was their job, working as a sort of tag team from the “Virtue League of America,” to divert Saratoga from its ramble down the primrose path. First came their effort to save the springs themselves, which were in danger of being exploited to death by carbonic-gas interests. According to the June 1915 issue of Travel magazine:
“Mr. Trask succeeded in interesting Charles Evans Hughes, then governor, in the future possibilities of Saratoga as a health resort. The result was the creation of a commission in 1909 of the State Reservation at Saratoga Springs for the purpose of acquiring... the numerous mineral springs... which then were being either neglected or despoiled by the excessive pumping of carbonic gas for commercial uses....”
As governor, Hughes not only supported the legislation that created the State Reservation, or park, that saved the springs (Dr. Grace Swanner, in her Saratoga, Queen of Spas, notes that the “Governor” spring, in High Rock Park, is named for him), but named Trask its first head commissioner. (Much later Hughes called Saratoga a “favored spot” in a message he sent on the 1935 opening of the Spa—which Swanner says was the first major New Deal program to be completed.)
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Trask was killed in a train crash at the end of 1909, but he’d fought gambling in Saratoga long before then. According to Edward Hotaling’s They’re Off—Horse Racing at Saratoga: “... just two years after Albert Spencer assumed sole control of the track and club house (in 1887), another crusader rode into town on his high horse. This was Spencer Trask...Although the resort was long established as the nation’s leading summer gambling center and no easy mark, Trask was a formidable force, too, and he expected the town to conform to him.”
Trask, Hotaling adds, “tossed a reported $50,000 [well over $1 million in today’s money] at trying to break Saratoga’s open illegal gambling, hiring pricey New York detectives to gather evidence.” When Hughes became governor in 1907, Trask and other reformers hoped that the time to drive a stake through the heart of vice in Saratoga had finally come. Hughes backed and signed a 1908 law that attacked betting directly; it was, Hotaling says, a “disaster” for the racing industry.
Allan Carter and Mike Kane, in their 150 Years of Racing in Saratoga, note that while gambling was illegal by the 1910 season, the law was not being enforced. Though his ally Trask was gone by this time, “Hughes,” according to Carter and Kane, “was determined to make the changes that would stop gambling.” And so he did, although even the strengthened follow-up law he signed—which kept the track dark in 1911 and 1912— eventually was struck down. Hughes might well have tried again, but President Taft’s offer of an associate justice’s seat on the Supreme Court lured him from Albany near the end of his second term in 1910 (New York governors served two-year terms at the time). As governor, Hughes signed a workmen’s compensation bill into law, approved the establishment of a public service commission and reformed insurance and labor laws.
Hughes, unlike Trask, operated from inside government, but it’s clear that each worked in his own way toward goals both shared. It’s not hard to imagine that Hughes’ homage to Trask—he only lived to serve humanity—might well have been used by Trask to eulogize Hughes if the latter had fallen first.
Last fall, Glens Falls hosted a city-wide celebration to honor its native son, who kept close ties to the region throughout his career, vacationing on Lake George and regularly visiting friends in Glens Falls and Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls). “Hughes was instrumental in labor rights and the suffrage movement,” said Rhonda Triller of the Hyde Collection, a key sponsor. “He was reported to be a true gentleman, civil and fair, even throughout his presidential bid.”
Hughes “had close friendships with both the Hyde and Hoopes families,” said Museum Director Erin Coe. Founders Louis and Charlotte Hyde “understood the importance of civic life”—a dedication Hughes and Trask shared. Hughes died in 1948, nearly four decades after his good friend.
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Jeff Durstewitz co-authored the award-winning Bantam memoir Younger Than That Now—A Shared Passage From the Sixties. Writing as Joe Fegan, he set his new novel, The Devil’s Room, in Ireland
and a town that Saratogians may find familiar.