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Thurman Wesley Arnold

Thurman Wesley Arnold

As assistant attorney general heading the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Thurman Wesley Arnold (1891-1969) spearheaded the campaign against corporate monopoly carried on by the Roosevelt administration.

Born on June 2, 1891, the son of a prosperous lawyer and rancher, Thurman Arnold grew up in and around Laramie, Wyo., which still retained much of its raw frontier character. At the age of 16, having graduated from the University of Wyoming Preparatory School, Arnold went east to enter Princeton University. Although his years at Princeton were, by his own account, ordinary, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and he determined on a legal career. He received his law degree from Harvard in 1914 and established his practice in Chicago.

In the spring of 1916 Arnold's field artillery unit of the Illinois National Guard was ordered to Texas to assist the United States expedition into Mexico to search for the guerrilla bandit leader Pancho Villa. Arnold was scarcely back in Chicago when the United States declared war against Germany and his unit was again mobilized. Just before going overseas, he married Frances Longan of Chicago. In later years the Arnolds had two sons.

Lawyer, Teacher, and Author

After the war Arnold returned with his wife to Laramie and established a fairly prosperous law practice. He became active in local Democratic party politics, serving one term as mayor of Laramie and several years in the Wyoming Legislature. In 1927, however, with an agricultural depression affecting business in Laramie, Arnold became dean of the University of West Virginia Law School. Three years later he accepted appointment to the law faculty at Yale University.

Arnold soon became known as a leading articulator of legal realism, the new theoretical movement that aimed to create a pragmatic science of the law. In two brilliant books, The Symbols of Government (1935) and The Folklore of Capitalism (1937), he cut through the abstractions and myths surrounding American political and economic institutions to explain the hard realities of matured industrial capitalism. Meanwhile he gave more of his time to government work under the New Deal, serving as special counsel for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and as trial examiner for the Securities and Exchange Commission. In March 1938 he accepted an appointment from President Franklin Roosevelt as assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department.

Antitrust Campaign

With the economy still badly depressed in 1938 despite persistent efforts to promote recovery, the Roosevelt administration launched an attack on price-fixing and other anticompetitive business practices as part of its effort to reverse the slump. Arnold and his staff, charged with leading the attack, went to work vigorously. Within 3 years the Justice Department had instituted more antitrust prosecutions than it had in the half century since the passage of the Sherman Act (1890). Arnold's staff quickly grew from about two dozen to 190 lawyers. The antitrust campaign had mixed results. Some notable suits were won, particularly that against the aluminum monopoly, and for the first time the government moved against the monopolistic practices of labor unions. But in the year or so before Pearl Harbor (1941), solidification of government-business partnership to maximize war production cut short the antitrust program and left Arnold with little official support within the Roosevelt administration. He finally resigned in 1943 to become associate justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Arnold left after 2 years on the Federal bench to form a law partnership with Abraham Fortas and Paul A. Porter, and their firm became one of the busiest and most lucrative in Washington. Arnold generally remained out of the public eye, although he attracted considerable notoriety in the 1950s during several civil-liberties cases which the firm handled for former government officials investigated under the Truman administration's loyalty program. In the following decade Arnold remained reasonably active in his firm despite advancing age. He lived with his wife in Alexandria, Va., until his death on Nov. 7, 1969.

Further Reading

Arnold wrote an autobiography, Fair Fights and Foul: A Dissenting Lawyer's Life (1965). An excellent treatment of the realist movement in American legal theory, in which Arnold was a leading figure, is Wilfrid E. Rumble, Jr., American Legal Realism: Skepticism, Reform, and the Judicial Tradition (1968). Ellis W. Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly (1966), is equally good on the antitrust campaign carried out under Arnold's leadership in the late thirties. Broadus Mitchell, Depression Decade: From New Era through New Deal, 1929-1941 (1947), and William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963) may also be consulted on Arnold's career in the New Deal.

Additional Sources

Arnold, Thurman Wesley, Voltaire and the cowboy: the letters of Thurman Arnold, Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1977. □

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