William Rufus Day was an American diplomat and jurist, who served for nineteen years as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
William Rufus Day was born in Ravenna, Ohio, on April 17, 1849, the son of Emily Spaulding Day and Luther Day. The reluctance that the future Supreme Court justice exhibited toward entering public life once he reached adulthood cannot be traced to his family background. Though Ravenna was a small town some 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, Day’s family connections were considerably more prestigious than the venue of his birth might have suggested. Both sides of his family boasted prominent judges: His mother’s grandfather had served as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, and his father and maternal grandfather both served on the Ohio Supreme Court. William Day’s choice of a vocation seems to have been early directed toward the path of the law.
He graduated from high school in 1866 and pursued an undergraduate literature major from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor die same year. Upon his graduation in 1870, he returned home to Ravenna, where he studied law for a year in the office of Judge George F. Robinson and then supplemented this study by returning to spend a year in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan Law School.
Alter law school, William Day returned to Ohio but veered away from Ravenna in favor of settling in the nearby town of Canton, where he was admitted to practice law in the summer of 1872. For the next quarter-century he lived the life of a small-town lawyer in Canton. Upon being admitted to practice, Day immediately formed a partnership with William S. Lynch, who had been practicing law for seven years when he and Day formed the firm of Lynch and Day. William Day soon added a marital partnership to his legal one, by his marriage to Mary Elizabeth Schaefer in 1875. This union, which produced four sons, William, Luther, Stephen, and Rufus, and lasted until Mary’s death in 1911.
Before Day arrived in Canton and began a law practice with William Lynch, his future partner had suffered political defeat at the hands of another young Canton lawyer named William McKinley, Jr., in races for the post of prosecuting attorney for Stark County. Once William Day began practice in Canton and became involved in the town’s Republican politics, he and McKinley gradually formed a fast friendship. Over the following years, as McKinley, tiie Civil War hero, clambered up the politic Tladder—first as a U.S. congressman, then as governor of Ohio, and finally as president ol the United States—Day acted as a behind-the- scenes adviser to his prominent friend. Day himself, though, preferred private life. In 1886, with bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats, Day obtained a seat on the Court of Common Pleas; but he served only six months as a judge before resigning, explaining at the time that the small salary attached to the position was not sufficient to meet his family needs. Three years later, in 1889, President Benjamin Harrison nominated Day to serve as a U.S. federal district judge. Nevertheless, even though tiie Senate confirmed the appointment, Day felt compelled to turn in down for reasons of poor health.
The following decade saw William McKinley win the presidential election of 1896, and he carried William Day into national public life in his wake. In April 1897 the president appointed Day as first assistant secretary of state. Though this position seemed at first less consequential than Day’s ability and long friendship with the president might have warranted, it soon proved to be a critical placement. The position of secretary of state had been filled by John Sherman, who had resigned his scat as U.S. senator from Ohio to accept the cabinet appointment. But failing mental faculties besieged Sherman and made him unable to fulfill the responsibilities of his position, especially during the turbulent events that culminated with the Spanish-American War—known as “the splendid little war,” a conflict with Spain over Cuba. In the weeks leading up to this conflict, Assistant Secretary of State Day, whose credentials as a lawyer were impeccable but whose qualifications as a diplomat were far more obscure, became de facto secretary of state. He generally favored a moderate course with Spain, but after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor in February 1898, national sentiment resolutely marched toward war. Finally, when the United States declared war against Spain in April 1898, Sherman resigned his post and the president appointed Day to be secretary of state in title as well as fact. He did not remain in this cabinet position for long, though. After six months, Day resigned to head the United States delegation to the Paris peace conference that met in the fall and early winter of 1898. As the leader of this diplomatic mission, William Day eventually spearheaded the bargaining that acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands for the United States.
When he completed the mission to Paris, Day attempted to return home to Canton, but President McKinley had other uses for his friend. In February 1899 the president appointed Day as a judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here, Judge Day joined William Howard Taft and Howard H. Lurton, both of whom would eventually serve with him on the U.S. Supreme Court as well. But when Day did advance to a seat on the Court, it was not his presidential friend who placed him there; McKinley was killed by an assassin’s bullet in the summer of 1901, ending the long friendship. A new president, however, Theodore Roosevelt, soon had occasion to consider Day for an appointment to the nation’s highest court when Justice George Shiras, Jr., resigned in October 1902. Roosevelt turned first to William Howard Taft to fill the vacancy, but Taft, by this time U.S. civil governor of the Philippines, felt he could not abandon his post there. Thus, the president determined to shore up political support in Ohio by naming William Day to the Court instead. On March 2, 1903, William Rufus Day took his seat as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He would hold this position for almost 20 years.
In 1911 Day’s wife Mary died, but he continued to enjoy the close companionship of his son Rufus, who served as his secretary. Day missed several months ot work in 1915, after suffering a severe illness, but otherwise occupied his seat on the Court faithfully until he reached die age of 73. He announced his retire¬ment from the Court on November 13, 1922. President Warren G. Harding tempted the eld¬erly Day into a position on the Mixed Claims Commission, which w'as established to resolve claims arising out ol World War I, but Day soon resigned from this post because of ill health.
Day arrived on the Court at a time when it was wrestling with constitutional issues that pitted progressive influences on the Court against conservative justices who championed laissez-faire economics. In the early decades of the 20th century, business interests found support among a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court in their efforts to escape regulations imposed on them by federal and state government authorities. Congress attempted to regulate many of the growing economic problems of the century through use of its commerce power—that is, the power to pass laws to regulate commerce among the states. In their attempts to address similar economic problems, state and local governments relied, in turn, on their general powers to regulate matters affecting the health and welfare of citizens. Commercial interests were able to frustrate a good deal of lawmaking at both levels. They persuaded a majority of the Court to narrowly construe Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, chiefly by defining “com-merce” itself narrowly. They also persuaded a majority of the Court to safeguard contractual and property rights from unreasonable state and local regulations. The sharp distinction between progressives and conservatives did not capture Day’s own thinking, however. In contrast with some conservatives on the Court, he tended to favor a wide latitude for state law-making, even when it affected the contractual and property interests of businesses, but, in contrast with liberal justices on the Court, Day tended to narrowly construe federal power to regulate interstate commerce.
William Day married to Mary Elizabeth Schaefer in 1875. This union, which produced four sons, William, Luther, Stephen, and Rufus, and lasted until Mary’s death in 1911.