About Frederick Moore "Fred" Vinson
Frederick Moore Vinson (January 22, 1890 – September 8, 1953) served the United States in all three branches of government and was the most prominent member of the Vinson political family. In the legislative branch, he was an elected member of the United States House of Representatives from Louisa, Kentucky, for twelve years. In the executive branch, he was the Secretary of Treasury under President Harry S. Truman. In the judicial branch, he was the 13th Chief Justice of the United States, appointed by President Truman.
Frederick Vinson, known universally as "Fred", was born in the newly built, eight-room, red brick house in front of the Lawrence County jail, Louisa, Kentucky, where his father served as the Lawrence County Jailer. As a child he would help his father in the jail and even made friends with prisoners who would remember his kindness when he later ran for public office. Vinson worked odd jobs while in school. He graduated from Kentucky Normal School in 1908 and enrolled at Centre College, where he graduated at the top of his class. While at Centre, he was a member of the Kentucky Alpha Delta chapter of Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He became a lawyer in Louisa, a small town of 2,500 residents. He first ran for, and was elected to, office as the City Attorney of Louisa.
He joined the Army during World War I. Following the war, he was elected as the Commonwealth's Attorney for the Thirty-Second Judicial District of Kentucky.
U.S. Representative from Kentucky
In 1924, he ran in a special election for his district's seat in Congress after William J. Fields resigned to become the governor of Kentucky. Vinson was elected as a Democrat and then was reelected twice before losing in 1928. His loss was attributed to his refusal to dissociate his campaign from Alfred E. Smith's presidential campaign. However, Vinson came back to win re-election in 1930, and he served in Congress through 1937.
While he was in Congress he befriended Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, a friendship that would last throughout his life. He soon became a close advisor, confidante, card player, and dear friend to Truman. After Truman decided against running for another term as president in the early 1950s, he tried to convince a skeptical Vinson to seek the Democratic Party nomination, but Vinson turned down the President's offer. After being equally unsuccessful in enlisting General Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Truman eventually landed on Governor of Illinois Adlai Stevenson as his preferred successor in the 1952 presidential election.
Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
During a poorly attended, hot summer afternoon debate on Aug. 2nd, 1937 when the question was asked if the American Medical Association approved of the Act, then Representative Vinson stood up and said "Their Doctor Wentworth [sic] came down here. They support this bill 100%". However, Representative Vinson was present at the May 4, 1937 Ways and Means Committee hearings in which the AMA counsel Dr. Woodward stated the A.M.A. not only did not support it but strenuously objected on many levels. Based on these false facts, the act passed without a roll call vote. Under the guise of a tax this effectively created a federal ban on the use of Hemp for fiber, fuel, medicine and food.
U.S. Court of Appeals
Vinson's Congressional service ended after he was nominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 26, 1937, to the federal bench. Roosevelt wanted him to fill a seat vacated by Charles H. Robb on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. While he was there, he was designated by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone on March 2, 1942, as chief judge of the United States Emergency Court of Appeals. He served here until his resignation on May 27, 1943.
Secretary of Treasury
He resigned from the bench to become Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization, an executive agency charged with fighting inflation. He also spent time as Federal Loan Administrator (March 6 to April 3, 1945) and director of War Mobilization and Reconversion (April 4 to July 22, 1945). He was appointed United States Secretary of the Treasury by President Truman and served from July 23, 1945, to June 23, 1946.
His mission as Secretary of the Treasury was to stabilize the American economy during the last months of the war and to adapt the United States financial position to the drastically changed circumstances of the postwar world. Before the war ended, Vinson directed the last of the great war-bond drives.
At the end of the war, he negotiated payment of the British Loan of 1946, the largest loan made by the United States to another country ($3.75 billion), and the lend-lease settlements of economic and military aid given to the allies during the war. In order to encourage private investment in postwar America, he promoted a tax cut in the Revenue Act of 1945. He also supervised the inauguration of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund, both created at the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, acting as the first chairman of their respective boards. In 1946, Vinson resigned from the Treasury to be appointed Chief Justice of the United States by Truman; the Senate confirmed him by voice vote on June 20 of that year (E. H. Moore had expressed opposition but was not present for the vote).
Vinson took the oath of office as Chief Justice on June 24, 1946. President Truman had nominated his old friend after Harlan Fiske Stone died. See, Harry S. Truman Supreme Court candidates. His appointment came at a time when the Supreme Court was deeply fractured, both intellectually and personally. One faction was led by Justice Hugo Black, the other by Justice Felix Frankfurter. Some of the justices would not even speak to one another. Vinson was credited with patching this fracture, at least on a personal level.
In his time on the Supreme Court, he wrote 77 opinions for the court and 13 dissents. His most dramatic dissent was when the court voided President Truman's seizure of the steel industry during a strike in a June 3, 1952 decision, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. His final public appearance at the court was when he read the decision not to review the conviction and death sentence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After Justice William O. Douglas granted a stay of execution to the Rosenbergs at the last moment, Chief Justice Vinson sent special flights out to bring vacationing justices back to Washington in order to ensure the execution of the Rosenbergs. The Vinson court also gained infamy for its refusal to hear the appeal of the Hollywood Ten in their 1947 contempt of congress charge. As a result, all ten would serve a year in jail for invoking their First Amendment right of free association before J. Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During his tenure as Chief Justice, one of his law clerks was future Associate Justice Byron White.
The major issues his court dealt with included racial segregation, labor unions, communism and loyalty oaths. On racial segregation, he wrote that states practicing the separate but equal doctrine must provide facilities that were truly equal, in Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents. The case of Briggs et al v. Clarendon County School District was before the Court at the time of his death. Vinson, not wanting a 5-4 decision, had ordered a second hearing of the case. He died before the case could be reheard, and his vote may have been pivotal. See Felix Frankfurter. Upon his death Earl Warren was appointed to the Court and the case was heard again.
As Chief Justice, he swore in Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower as Presidents.
As of 2011, Vinson is the last Chief Justice to be appointed by a Democratic President, namely Harry Truman. His successors, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts were all appointed by Republican presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, respectively).
Potential cabinet position
When Secretary of State Dean Acheson came under fire from congressional Republicans for being "soft on communism" at the end of 1950 Vinson was briefly mentioned as the new Secretary of State and Dean Acheson as the new Chief Justice. This speculation died down when President Truman retained Acheson at the State Department.
Frederick M. Vinson married Roberta Dixon of Ashland, Kentucky, in 1924. They had two sons: Frederick Vinson, Jr. and James Vinson. Frederick Vinson Jr. married Nell Morrison and they had two children named Frederick Vinson III and Carolyn Pharr Vinson. James Vinson married Margaret Russell and they had four children named James Robert, Margaret, Michael Arthur and Matthew Dixon.
Death and legacy
Frederick M. Vinson died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack early on the morning of September 8, 1953; his body is interred in Pinehill Cemetery, Louisa, Kentucky. His death came at a crucial time in American history, as his successor Earl Warren, persuaded the Court to unanimously agree to the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.
An extensive collection of Vinson's personal and judicial papers is archived at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where they are available for research.
A portrait of Vinson hangs in the hallway of the chapter house of the Kentucky Alpha-Delta chapter of Phi Delta Theta (ΦΔΘ) international fraternity, at Centre College. Vinson was a member of the chapter in his years at Centre. Affectionately known as "Dead Fred", the portrait is taken by fraternity members to Centre football and basketball games and other events.