Hugo Black and the Bill of Rights
In a draft paper, I make the argument that the Bill of Rights did not become significant in American law until the 1940s. The most important figure in making the Bill of Rights central to our constitutional culture, I say, was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who elevated that text in a series of high-profile speeches from 1934 to 1941. The paper does not examine references to the Bill of Rights outside of the Supreme Court and presidential addresses (both from 1789 to the 1940s), but now I think I may need to make an exception.
In 1937, the President nominated Senator Hugo L. Black to the Supreme Court. After Black was confirmed, the media exposed his membership in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. Amid calls for his resignation, Black gave a national radio address that was heard by a huge audience estimated at 40 million. He began with this line: “The Constitution is the supreme law of our country. The Bill of Rights is the heart of the Constitution.” That is as clear a statement as anyone can make about that issue, and Black’s speech came less than two weeks after FDR stressed the Bill of Rights in his Constitution Day Address. Black’s statement, of course, can now be seen as a forerunner of his advocacy for the total incorporation of the Bill of Rights during his tenure on the Court.