Fred Vinson Biography

Judge, U.S. Representative, Supreme Court Justice (1890–1953)
Fred Vinson was the 13th chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Fred Vinson was born on January 22, 1890, in Louisa, Kentucky. In 1923, he filled a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1938 to 1943, he served in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. President Harry S. Truman appointed him secretary of the Treasury in 1945. One year later, Vinson became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He died in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 1953.

Early Life

Born on January 22, 1890, in Louisa, Kentucky, Frederick Moore Vinson served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1946 to 1953. His father worked as a jailer in Vinson's small hometown, but he died when Vinson was still a baby. His mother did what she could to support the family. Vinson went to work after school to help out.

In 1908, Vinson graduated from the Kentucky Normal School. He was an outstanding student there and continued to thrive academically at Centre College. After earning his legal degree in 1911, Vinson soon became the city attorney in his hometown. He held the post from 1914 to 1915. He briefly entered private practice until serving in World War I in the U.S. Army. In 1921, Vinson was elected to the post of state attorney.

Distinguished Politician

Fred Vinson moved on to the national political scene in 1924. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. He won re-election for two more terms, and was defeated in 1928. In 1929, Vinson returned to private practice in Kentucky, but his sojourn from national politics proved to be brief. In 1930, he won re-election to Congress, serving another three terms in the House.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Vinson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He resigned this post to work more directly for the Roosevelt Administration. In 1943, Vinson was named director of Economic Stabilization. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman named him his secretary of treasury.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

A close associate of Truman, Vinson was named chief justice to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946; he was brought in to replace the late Harlan Fiske Stone and settle a dispute within the Supreme Court. After Stone's death, Truman had resolve conflict between the existing justices on the Supreme Court. Both Hugo Black and Robert H. Jackson threatened to resign if the other got the top spot on the court. Instead, Truman brought in his close associate to be chief justice.

History has not been kind to Vinson's tenure as chief justice. He has been considered one of the least successful chief justices of all time. To be fair, Vinson had to manage a divided court with those for judicial activism, including Black, on one side and those championing judicial restraint, including Jackson, on the other. Still, it is notable that the case load of the court dropped significantly under Vinson. After his first year, the court only handled roughly 90 cases annually.

Vinson is also remembered for his support of Dennis v. United States (1951), which upheld the convictions of members of the American Communist Party. The following year, he sided with the president, opposing the decision in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The court decided that the government's decision to take over steel mills as a part of the war effort was, in fact, unconstitutional.

Vinson remained on the court until his death. He died of a heart attack on September 8, 1953, at his apartment in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife, Roberta, and their two sons, Frederick Jr. and James. A funeral service for Vinson was held in Washington, D.C., and attended by Truman and then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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