The Magazine

John Roberts's Other Papers

From the August 8, 2005 issue: Portrait of the judge as an undergraduate.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

John Roberts was born in Buffalo, New York, and raised in Long Beach, Indiana, but he spent much of his young adulthood--about six years--in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first as an undergraduate at Harvard College, then as a student at Harvard Law. Roberts matriculated at Harvard in the fall of 1973, graduated summa cum laude three years later, entered Harvard Law that fall, graduated magna cum laude in 1979--and was promptly hospitalized for exhaustion.

Ever since July 19, when President Bush nominated Roberts to replace retiring associate Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, accounts of the nominee's Harvard days have found their way into newspaper profiles and magazine sidebars. The anecdotes tend to be isolated, the events only dimly recalled, but taken together they suggest a driven young man, eager to achieve, and possessed of an intellect that would allow him to achieve. The only question was . . . achieve what?
When Roberts arrived on campus, he was drawn to the study of history. One of his roommates told the Harvard Crimson the other day that "John loved history, and said he'd be a history professor." One of his advisers, William LaPiana, now a professor at New York Law School, told the Crimson that Roberts was a "hard-working and happy undergraduate who loved studying history." Early on, then, a life in academia was a possibility.

Roberts certainly had the habits of an academic. He studied constantly. He liked to quote Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and raconteur, to those around him. He and his friends' idea of collegiate athletics was Nerf basketball played in dorm rooms. According to a roommate, he "always had a bottle or two on hand"--a bottle or two of Pepto Bismol. "There were no parties."

Roberts was a nerd, in other words. But he was an extremely accomplished nerd. Roberts entered Harvard with sophomore standing; his first year, he won the William Scott Ferguson award--given annually to the sophomore history major who writes an "outstanding essay" as part of a class assignment. To win a second-year award in your first year is no small thing. Roberts's essay was entitled "Marxism and Bolshevism: Theory and Practice." Unfortunately, no public copy of it seems to exist. Maybe Sen. Schumer will subpoena it from the nominee's private papers.

Two of Roberts's college history papers survive, however, in the Harvard University Archives. For a few bucks the archivists will send you copies of "The Utopian Conservative: A Study of Continuity and Change in the Thought of Daniel Webster" and "Old and New Liberalism: The British Liberal Party's Approach to the Social Problem, 1906-1914." Roberts wrote both papers in his senior year, and while it's safe to say they are bereft of any clues to how Roberts would rule as a Supreme Court justice, they make for lively reading and shed some light on his interests and his character as a young man.

Roberts's essay on Daniel Webster, "The Utopian Conservative," is 29 pages long. There are 31 footnotes. It won the 1976 Bowdoin Prize for Undergraduates, for excellence in English composition, and like all such prizewinners, it's written for the general reader.

It deserved to win. In a few short pages Roberts outlines the contours of Webster's thought, finding it "essentially consistent," and based "on the solid bed-rock of a world view which remained constant despite the vicissitudes of politics." Roberts is drawn to Webster's constancy, his ability to engage in politics while behaving as if he were above politics. And Roberts is drawn to Webster's pragmatism. The Massachusetts senator's "entire public life," writes Roberts, "in one way or another, was to be a variation on this one theme: the rights of property." Webster, attempting desperately to hold the Union together, spent much of his life arguing that the nation's diverse economic interests could act as a glue, binding one region to another.

Webster failed, of course. Ideas and politics overwhelmed economics. But why did Webster fail? Roberts concludes that he was a man out of step with his age. "Webster needed an idealistic society to support his realistic nationalism," writes Roberts, "a society in which class and sectional conflict did not exist. The America of the 1850s was no such society; neither"--and here Roberts gives us a brief and rare glimpse into his personal beliefs--"is the America of the 1970s."

Reading "The Utopian Conservative," one is struck again and again by the lucidity of young Roberts's prose, the ease with which he writes, and the style that emerges from his plain language. "Only a national bank could insure uniformity and fluidity of currency," he writes, "a common concern of the California pioneer, the Kentucky drover, the Alabama planter, and the New York laborer." Later in the essay, noting a change in Webster's thought, Roberts writes, "Silken cords of affection had replaced iron bonds of interest." These are lovely constructions--sentences you'd expect to find in a Jacques Barzun essay, not in a Harvard undergraduate paper.

On March 25, 1976, about the time he was finishing "The Utopian Conservative," Roberts submitted his paper on the British Liberal party as his senior honors thesis. This essay is considerably longer--a dense 166 pages, plus 9 pages of endnotes and bibliographical material--and includes cartoon illustrations from Punch. There are a few hundred footnotes. To support his argument, Roberts draws from songs, pamphlets, speeches, and letters of the era. It's clear, too, that he's immersed himself in the secondary literature. An early reference is to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's Victorian Minds.

"Established institutions are periodically assailed by new social forces which test their ability to survive," Roberts begins. The British Liberal party, he argues, was no different. It had to cope with the rise of the masses in general and the rise of labor unions in particular--what politicians and critics of the Edwardian era referred to as "the social problem." The Liberal party formed its last government in 1906, and held power until 1915, then declined precipitously. Roberts's central question: "Did the Liberal Party decline because it refused to adapt to the modern polity, with its large proportion of working-class electors, or must the cause of decline be sought elsewhere?"

Roberts's argument is a complex one, difficult to distill here, but suffice it to say that the Liberal party's problem was that it won working-class votes when it adopted a reform program, and not when it didn't. Like any good historian, Roberts acknowledges throughout the limitations of his argument, and he is reluctant to draw conclusions, even though "it is not easy for a student to leave a problem unsolved."
More important, for our purposes, is Roberts's technique. He explains: "Rather than measuring the final product against some pre-determined standard and finding it either acceptable or wanting, I hope to examine the matrix from which reform emerged." And, more important still, at times Roberts's thesis reads like a legal brief: He always clearly states exactly what will be accomplished in each chapter, and in each section of each chapter, and sometimes in each paragraph of each section of each chapter. By the end of the thesis it is clear that Roberts has given up history for the law.

Two things stand out in these old term papers. One is Roberts's sense of humor. "The Websterian leader should be non-partisan," Roberts writes in "The Utopian Conservative": "above demagoguery, concerned for the public good, and, above all, the Websterian leader should be . . . Webster." And here's Roberts on David Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister: "Passion, intellect, and determination, or, if you prefer--as many did then and now--zealotry, deviousness, and obduracy, were the characteristics which propelled Lloyd George." Clever lines, both--well worth a chuckle, and evidence, one likes to think, of Roberts's reported love of P.G. Wodehouse.

The other striking thing is the emphasis Roberts places on the individual. His histories include room for social, cultural, and demographic phenomena, but also clear out a space for individual action. Roberts concludes his thesis by pointing out that "the individual initiative of the [Liberal] Party's most dynamic leaders" helped to counteract forces in the party that "inhibited an energetic confrontation of the social problem." Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were "doctors" helping the Liberal party to survive. They were "the gods of Liberal reform." As they went, so did their party.
This runs against the current of most contemporary academic historians, who view history either as driven by abstract and mechanical economic structures, or as the constant conspiring of the powerful against the powerless. But neither does Roberts embrace the "Great Man Theory of History" or any other overarching approach. Instead he appropriately acknowledges the impact men like Daniel Webster, David Lloyd George, and Winston Churchill had on the politics and everyday life of their times.

Roberts also seems to be drawn to noble causes--Webster's attempt to save the Union, Lloyd George and Churchill's program of incremental reform--that end in failure. The Union busted; there was civil war. The Liberal party collapsed; the British welfare state metastasized. A deep respect for courageous intentions and righteous politics courses through Roberts's college papers. He grows most eloquent when he describes a man of character, a disinterested, self-sacrificing man of wisdom who continually worked with others of his sort to resolve any controversy which threatened national harmony. The man of character did not fight in the thick of political battles, but rather raised himself above the conflict and stilled it through dispassionate compromise.

Doubtless Roberts saw such qualities in the men he wrote about while at Harvard--and perhaps he aspired to cultivate them in himself.

Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.