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
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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."