Fred M. Vinson

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Fred Vinson
13th Chief Justice of the United States
In office
June 21, 1946 – September 8, 1953
Nominated byHarry S. Truman
Preceded byHarlan F. Stone
Succeeded byEarl Warren
53rd United States Secretary of the Treasury
In office
July 23, 1945 – June 23, 1946
PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded byHenry Morgenthau, Jr.
Succeeded byJohn Wesley Snyder
Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization
In office
May 28, 1943 – July 23, 1945
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byJames F. Byrnes
Succeeded byWilliam Hammatt Davis
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
In office
December 15, 1937 – May 28, 1943
Appointed byFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byCharles Henry Robb
Succeeded byWilbur Kingsbury Miller
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 8th district
In office
March 4, 1933 – May 27, 1938
Preceded byRalph W. E. Gilbert
Succeeded byJoe B. Bates
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1931 – March 3, 1933
Preceded byElva R. Kendall
Succeeded byJohn Y. Brown, Sr.
In office
January 24, 1924 – March 3, 1929
Preceded byWilliam J. Fields
Succeeded byElva R. Kendall
Personal details
Frederick Moore Vinson

(1890-01-22)January 22, 1890
Louisa, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedSeptember 8, 1953(1953-09-08) (aged 63)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Julia Dixon (m. 1924)
EducationCentre College (BA, LLB)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1918
Battles/warsWorld War I

Frederick "Fred" Moore Vinson (January 22, 1890 – September 8, 1953) was an American Democratic politician who served the United States in all three branches of government. The most prominent member of the Vinson political family, he was the 53rd United States Secretary of the Treasury and the 13th Chief Justice of the United States.

Born in Louisa, Kentucky, he pursued a legal career and served in the army during World War I. After the war, he served as the Commonwealth's Attorney for the Thirty-Second Judicial District of Kentucky before winning election to the United States House of Representatives in 1924. He lost re-election in 1928 but regained his seat in 1930 and served in Congress until 1937. During his time in Congress, he became an adviser and confidante of Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Vinson to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Vinson resigned from the appellate court in 1943, when he became the Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization. After Truman acceded to the presidency following Roosevelt's death in 1945, Truman appointed Vinson to the position of Secretary of the Treasury. Vinson negotiated the payment of the Anglo-American loan and presided over the establishment of numerous post-war organizations, including the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund.

After the death of Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone in 1946, Truman appointed Vinson to the Supreme Court. To date, Vinson is the last Chief Justice nominee nominated by a president from the Democratic Party to be confirmed.[1][2] Vinson dissented in the case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, which ruled against Truman's seizure of the nation's steel mills during a strike. He ordered a rehearing of the Briggs v. Elliott case, which was eventually combined into the case known as Brown v. Board of Education. Vinson unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1953.

Early years[edit]

Birthplace in Louisa, Kentucky

Frederick Moore Vinson, known universally as "Fred", was born in the newly built, eight-room, red brick house in front of the Lawrence County jail in 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. Vinson married Julia Roberta Dixon on January 24, 1924 in Ashland, Kentucky. They had two sons:

  • Frederick Vinson, Jr., who married the former Nell Morrison and had two children: Frederick M. Vinson III and Carolyn Pharr Vinson;
  • James Vinson, who married the former Margaret Russell and had four children: James Robert Vinson, Margaret Vinson, Michael Arthur Vinson and Matthew Dixon Vinson.

U.S. Representative from Kentucky[edit]

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, confidant, 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.

U.S. Court of Appeals[edit]

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. Vinson was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 9, 1937, and received his commission on December 15, 1937. 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 the Treasury[edit]

Official portrait as Secretary of the Treasury
Vinson's signature, as used on American currency

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).

Chief Justice[edit]

Swearing in of Chief Justice Vinson on White house portico

Vinson took the oath of office as Chief Justice on June 24, 1946.[3] President Truman had nominated his old friend after Harlan Fiske Stone died. His appointment came at a time when the Supreme Court was deeply fractured, both intellectually and personally.[4] One faction was led by Justice Hugo Black, the other by Justice Felix Frankfurter.[4] Vinson was credited with patching this fracture,[according to whom?] at least on a personal level.[citation needed]

Fred M. Vinson bust, U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.. Sculptor Jimilu Mason

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. 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 v. Elliott 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, q.v., discussion of Brown in 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 President.

Vinson is the last Chief Justice to have been 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). As the leader of a court entirely appointed by Roosevelt and Truman, he is also the last Chief Justice to preside over a court solely nominated by presidents of one political party (Harold Hitz Burton, the sole remaining Republican on the Court upon Vinson's death, had been nominated to the Court by Truman).

Potential cabinet position[edit]

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.

Death and legacy[edit]

Vinson died suddenly and unexpectedly on September 8, 1953, of a heart attack at his Washington home, and his body is interred in Pinehill Cemetery, Louisa, Kentucky.[5][6]

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.

The Fred M. Vinson Birthplace, in Louisa, Kentucky, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fred M. Vinson". Retrieved April 23, 2013.
  2. ^ David Leonhardt (June 2, 2014). "The Supreme Court Blunder That Liberals Tend to Make", The New York Times. Retrieved June 3, 2014.
  3. ^ Video: Big Four Turns Down Austria on Tyrol, 1946/06/24 (1946). Universal Newsreel. 1946. Retrieved February 20, 2012.
  4. ^ a b James E. St. Clair and Linda C. Gugin, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography, p. 169-171.
  5. ^ Christensen, George A. (1983). "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices". Supreme Court Historical Society 1983 Yearbook. Archived from the original on September 3, 2005.
  6. ^ Christensen, George A. (February 19, 2008). "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited". Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41. University of Alabama.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
William Fields
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 9th congressional district

Succeeded by
Elva Kendall
Preceded by
Elva Kendall
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 9th congressional district

Succeeded by
John Brown
Preceded by
Ralph Gilbert
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 8th congressional district

Succeeded by
Joe Bates
Legal offices
Preceded by
Charles Robb
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Succeeded by
Wilbur Miller
New seat Chief Judge of the Emergency Court of Appeals
Succeeded by
Albert Maris
Preceded by
Harlan Stone
Chief Justice of the United States
Succeeded by
Earl Warren
Political offices
Preceded by
James Byrnes
Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization
Succeeded by
William Davis
Preceded by
Henry Morgenthau
United States Secretary of the Treasury
Succeeded by
John Snyder