No bidders for ‘Anti-Semitic’ Taft letter opposing Brandeis nomination

Marcy Oster

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — A letter from former President William Howard Taft attacking the nomination of Louis D. Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court in thinly veiled anti-Semitic terms may be of historic value, but apparently not $15,000 worth.

That sum was the opening bid set by the Nate D. Sanders auction house in Los Angeles for the 1916 document, but by the April 28 deadline no bids had been received.

Taft’s epistle sheds light on the state of anti-Semitism at the time in the most “respectable” circles. In addition, the episode provides an interesting parallel to the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, another Jewish lawyer, to the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Taft had reportedly hoped that President Woodrow Wilson, his successor in the White House, would appoint him to the seat left vacant by the unexpected death of Justice Joseph R. Lamar, just as the 1916 presidential election campaign was heating up.

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Although Taft claimed that his opposition to Brandeis was based on the latter’s progressive and “socialist” views, Taft’s scurrilous language and constant emphasis on Brandeis’ Jewishness pointed more to a personal outrage at the prospect of a Jew being named, for the first time, to the Supreme Court.

In his four-page letter on Jan. 21, 1916 to Jewish journalist Gus Karger, Taft labeled Brandeis “cunning,” “a hypocrite,” “unscrupulous,” and possessing “much power for evil.”

Taft maintained that “the intelligent Jews of this country” also opposed Brandeis’ nomination, but that to counter that opposition Brandeis had suddenly “adopted Zionism, favors the new Jerusalem, and has metaphorically been re-circumcised.”

The Senate, after history’s first public hearing on a Supreme Court nomination, confirmed Brandeis by a 42-22 vote and the Jewish judge went on to a long and influential tenure on the court.

Although the historic letter is no longer up for auction, it is still available for sale by Nate D. Sanders Auctions in Los Angeles.