Significance: Hunt was one of the last Supreme Court justices of the Reconstruction era to adhere stubbornly to the principles of emancipation and full equality. His vigorous dissent in an 1876 case was an attempt to secure Fifteenth Amendment voting rights for African Americans.
Born in Utica, New York, Hunt was the son of a bank cashier. He received his education at Oxford and Geneva Academies. He later attended Hamilton and Union College where he received his LL.D. in 1828. He subsequently completed his legal education at the Litchfield Law School in Connecticut, where he studied under Judge Hiram Denie. Admitted to the bar in 1831, Hunt spent some time recuperating from poor health in the South before entering into a legal partnership with Denie. He soon established a flourishing practice and entered politics. Beginning his career as a Jacksonian Democrat, Hunt won election to a term in the New York assembly in 1838. He was later elected mayor of Utica in 1844. His real ambition, however, lay with the judiciary, and he aspired to a seat on the state supreme court. His first effort to be elected to a judiciary post failed. His defeat at the polls was largely attributed to widescale opposition from the Irish community. Hunt had earlier incurred the community's anger by successfully defending a police officer who had been accused of murdering an Irishman. Hunt became part of the Free-Soil movement in 1848, thereby incurring the enmity of the proslavery “Hunker” faction of New York's Democratic Party. In 1854 he joined the newly formed Republican Party and helped organize the party in New York. He again attempted to win election to a judicial post, but lost, largely because of his conversion to the Republican Party. In 1865 he was elected to the New York Court of Appeals. After gaining the patronage of such powerful Republicans as Roscoe Conkling, Hunt was nominated to the Supreme Court by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and confirmed by the Senate just one week later. As a justice, his most notable opinion was his dissent in the 1876 voting rights case of United States v. Reese, in which Hunt argued that the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right of African Americans to vote in state as well as federal elections. Although Reese involved the denial of voting rights by state officials, Hunt later acquiesced with the majority when the Court ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment did not apply in cases where blacks were denied their right to vote by private individuals. Moreover, in 1873, Hunt refused to recognize arguments advanced by Susan B. Anthony that the Fourteenth Amendment extended similar voting rights to women. Joining with the Court majority in Munn v. Illinois (1877), Hunt proved sympathetic to the use of state police power to regulate private business. His overall influence on the Court was nevertheless minimal.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Fairman, Charles. Reconstruction and Reunion, 1864-1888. Vol. 6 in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Decisive History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
- Friedman, Leon, and Fred Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
- Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
- Magrath, C. Peter. Morrison Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan Press, 1963.
- Stephenson, Donald Grier, Jr. The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.