On a trajectory for civic achievement: George Sutherland’s formative years

Written by Derek Monson

October 12, 2022

Upon his death in 1942, the Deseret News declared George Sutherland to be “one of the ablest men ever to come out of the West.” During his long years of public service to multiple United States presidents, in Congress and the Senate and on the Supreme Court of the United States, he was called “the ablest man in the United States Senate,“ “the greatest Constitutional lawyer in Congress” and even “the living voice of the Constitution.” These accolades raise the question of what role did growing up in Utah play in his life?

But more than simply influencing his philosophical outlook, Sutherland’s youth and formative years would have a distinct influence upon his life – putting him on a path to great civic accomplishments. The impact of Sutherland’s formative years on his distinguished life can be seen in five general categories: (1) family influence, (2) Utah culture and economy, (3) educational experience, (4) early employment, and (5) political development.

Family influence

In 1863, Charles Dickens visited a ship in the docks of Liverpool, England called the Amazon to learn about its nearly 900 passengers: members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all emigrating from England to the Utah Territory. He later documented this visit in a book titled The Uncommercial Traveler.

Among the passengers on the Amazon – who Dickens would describe in his book as “the pick and flower of England” – was a family with the surname Sutherland who had a young child named Alexander George, after his father. This boy had been born just 14 months earlier in Buckinghamshire, England. The young boy became George Sutherland to history because, later in his 20s, both George and his father were practicing law in the same courts and so, “to prevent confusion, dropped ‘Alexander’ from his baptismal name.” After arriving in the United States, Sutherland’s family traveled by train to Nebraska, followed by an eight-week trip by oxen-pulled wagon to Salt Lake City.

About a year before his death, Sutherland described this early childhood emigration experience to the 1941 graduating class of Brigham Young University:

I was brought to Utah when it was a thinly settled territory forming part of a vast, inhospitable wilderness identified up on the maps of the day as “The Great American Desert.” That was in 1863. My age was still reckoned in months; and my powers of observation, if any, were at very low tide. I knew nothing, of course, except that I was somewhere and in possession of a small body with an ambitious but more or less weak and wobbly pair of legs at one end, in which I took a mild interest, and a head at the other end, in which I should have taken no interest at all had it not included an ample inlet for the admission of food. It was only a short time, however, until I became aware of the fact that I was a resident of Springville, and naturally supposed that I had been there always until authoritatively advised to the contrary.

Sutherland’s father had a distinct impact on his life. He was “a man of unusual resource, even in the unsettled frontier life which made every man a jack-of-all-trades. He hauled freight, shod horses, taught school, argued law cases, became a justice of the peace and was finally made a mine recorder for the U.S. Land Office.” Sutherland’s father’s attempts to support the family met with some successes and some failures, leading the family to move several times during Sutherland’s youth and meaning that Sutherland’s early years were at least for a time “on the lower end of the local economic spectrum, but not at the bottom.”

During his teenage years, likely out of economic necessity for his family, Sutherland followed his father’s working-man example by taking various jobs and leading Pathfinder magazine to later declare that Sutherland was “well on the way to such a career [as his father].” However, Sutherland’s intellectual abilities and educational opportunities would eventually combine to allow him a different life trajectory.

Sutherland’s father was also known by his contemporaries as “a brilliant man.” In Sutherland’s later teenage years his father began practicing law and was declared “one of our most popular barristers” by a local newspaper. Sutherland brought one of his school friends who “shared a lifelong interest – manifest in both boys at an early age – in the law” to see his father’s library of law books, which the friend later noted as being “quite a large one for those days.” Sutherland and his father would later practice law together, and it seems reasonable to conclude that Sutherland’s father played a role in launching Sutherland into the legal career that would lead to a reputation as “the greatest Constitutional lawyer in Congress” and culminate in a seat on the Supreme Court.

Utah culture and economy

Life in the federal territory where Sutherland spent 33 years before it became the State of Utah was a hardscrabble experience foreign to most Utahns today. Sutherland described his first 14 years in the Utah Territory as “the closing epoch of that heartbreaking struggle against the forces of nature” inherent in trying to turn “the gray, unproductive sagebrush” of Utah into “smiling gardens and orchards and thriving fields of grain, to make the future secure.”

Sutherland noted that young boys during this time – one is left believing that he was indirectly describing his own experience – often went without shoes in warmer seasons and wore pants previously handed down three or four times. Regarding the requirements of economic life in the desert, Sutherland said:

Nobody worried about child labor. The average boy of ten…milked, cut and carried in the night’s wood, carried swill to the pigs, curried the horses, hoed the corn, guided the plow or, if not, followed it in the task of picking up potatoes which had been upturned, until his young vertebrae approached dislocation and he was ready to consider a bid to surrender his hopes of salvation in exchange for the comfort of a hinge in the small of his back.

Regarding the availability of food during his formative years, Sutherland said “there was never any surplus of food. Too often there was a scarcity. No one thought of a bonus as a means of curtailing production…. At meals the platter was licked clean. Nothing was wasted. If anything went wrong with the internal organs, an overloaded stomach was the last thing suspected.” As a result of the widespread requirement for constant hard labor by families to ensure their future:

Society was not divided into the idle rich and the worthy poor. There were no rich, idle or otherwise. Everybody was poor and everybody worked. … Work began when it was light enough to see and ended when it became too dark. Those who had candles to illuminate the supper table were fortunate. The light of a lamp was an exhibition of luxury. Among the people there was discomfort, hardship, lack of medicines for the sick, and an absence of that variety of food now considered so necessary to health. Calories were ignored; vitamins were unknown.

The sobering realities of economic life in the Utah Territory would define much of young George Sutherland’s life – influencing his work ethic, personal philosophy, economic views and desire for something more. In a similar vein, the culture of the surrounding people that would have provided his childhood playmates, and later friends and neighbors, left a strong impression on Sutherland.

“The people met shortages of food as they met other hardships – with courage and faith in God,” said Sutherland. These Utahns were a “prayerful people,” who “looked for the answer [to prayer] in their own efforts, strengthened by prayer and a renewed faith.” Seemingly recognizing this cultural influence upon his personal beliefs – Sutherland’s parents were convert Latter-day Saints, but he was not baptized in his youth (his parents left the church while he was young) and he never became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Sutherland said:

I have always believed, as [the early residents of the Utah Territory] believed, in the power and goodness of God and in the efficacy of prayer. And by prayer I do not mean that empty recital of pious words which is a mere movement of the lips, signifying nothing. I mean the form of prayer which finds its source in the innermost self – whether it be a simple prayer expressing devotion to God and asking his guidance and aid in respect of our everyday affairs, the effect of which is to strengthen our own inward forces and bring comfort to our hearts, or that supreme appeal for help in some dire extremity, when we can no longer summon powers of our own to help ourselves.

Early Utahns also, in Sutherland’s view, prioritized education. “In spite of poverty and other hindrances, education was not neglected,” he said. “The people had then…a fine passion for learning.” Sutherland would exhibit a similar passion when academic opportunity came his way.

Educational experience

Sutherland would note the importance to his life of his educational experience when he said not long before his death that, “The most impressionable years of a person’s life are those he spends in school. The character he then forms, in the vast majority of cases, will determine the trend of his character as long as he lives.”

George Sutherland’s formal schooling, by modern standards, was minimal. He had only three years of schooling after age 12, including one year of law school in Michigan. And yet, those few years – especially the two years Sutherland spent at Brigham Young Academy after his family moved to Provo when he was around 16 years old – would be part of the foundation of the rest of his life.

Significant influences of Brigham Young Academy included the lifelong relationships he formed there. Among the classmates that became his friends were Reed Smoot, who would become his fellow U.S. Senator from Utah; William H. King, with whom Sutherland attended law school in Michigan, who became Sutherland’s law partner and, interestingly, who was Sutherland’s opponent for elected office on multiple occasions; and Rosamond Lee, with whom Sutherland would build a marriage of more than 50 years after completing law school.

Describing the value of the relationships begun at Brigham Young Academy, Sutherland said:

To those former students…I am under heavy debt of gratitude; for they included many who brought friendships that have weathered all storms and held fast against differences of opinion, long separations, and all the other interferences that attend the flight of time. The greatest debt of all is that among them I found the attractive young friend who later became my wife, and whose love and helpfulness have blessed the more than half-century of companionship that has followed.

A second influence from Sutherland’s Brigham Young Academy years – perhaps the longest lasting – was that of the school’s principal, his teacher and mentor, Karl G. Maeser:

…Sutherland maintained throughout his life that no institution had so profound an influence on him as the little school in Provo, Utah, then known as Brigham Young Academy (now Brigham Young University). And no individual at the Academy had a greater impact on Sutherland than Karl G. Maeser, a Mormon immigrant from Germany who was the Academy’s principal. Along with Sutherland’s own father, also a Mormon convert and himself a prominent Utah frontier lawyer, Maeser helped shape the Justice’s lifelong views of the law and the U.S. Constitution. And Maeser’s impact on Sutherland’s outlook on life and on his very character may have been even more significant.

Maeser mentored and taught Sutherland during his two years at the academy as Sutherland studied, in just his first year, theology, reading, orthography, grammar, arithmetic, Latin, geography, phonography, bookkeeping and commercial lectures, history of civilization, rhetoric, and physiology. His second-year studies included rhetoric, Latin, philosophy, logic, Greek and the writings of Aristotle. Sutherland got top marks in nearly all subjects, with Maeser “often heard to say that Sutherland in his youth was one of the best writers in the English language he had ever known. He considered every essay this young man handed in for class recitation a model of classic literature.”

Concerning Maeser’s influence upon his life, Sutherland would write not long after taking his seat on the Supreme Court that “his teaching, example and character have constituted an influence for good upon my whole life that cannot be exaggerated.”

A final influence of Sutherland’s education was to help him along his path to a legal career. His year in law school, of course, would be part of this. But so would his time at Brigham Young Academy. He joined the civil government section of an academy society that included simulated legal experience:

Here George was appointed “Prosecuting Attorney” of the section’s moot court. In this capacity, he argued cases involving such offenses as fraudulent voting, a stolen note, murder, assault and battery, and “breaking the peace by loud and unusual noises.” The record notes that he won more cases than he lost.

Early employment

Likely forced by the economic hardships of life in Utah Territory, Sutherland left his home at age 12 for an employment opportunity in Salt Lake City (his family lived in Juab County at the time). He worked in various retail, bookkeeping and other jobs during his teenage years. These experiences contributed to Sutherland’s strong work ethic, which would be a feature of his Supreme Court service.

After he was admitted to practice law in Michigan upon completion of law school, Sutherland returned to Utah and practiced law there. He opened law firms with his father, with Brigham Young Academy classmate William King, and later with other professional colleagues. This frontier legal experience often included educating judges on the law they were tasked with adjudicating:

I transacted all kinds of business, civil. and criminal. A lawyer in a small town can’t pick and choose — public opinion demands that he shall treat all men alike when they call for his services. I often traveled on horseback in the mountains to try cases before Justices at the Peace. Some of the Justices had a smattering of the law, but most of them were densely ignorant on that subject. Some had common sense, while some in that respect were woefully deficient. I early discovered that if I had a case involving a point of law that I would have to prepare myself thoroughly beforehand so as to explain it, school-teacher fashion to the stumbling and unlearned Court.

This experience explaining the law to those without legal knowledge probably served Sutherland well in Congress and in the U.S. Senate where he gained his reputation for expertise in Constitutional law.

Sutherland’s early legal experience also contributed to the political trajectory that led to becoming an advisor to U.S. presidents and a Supreme Court justice:

After taking up the legal profession, first with his father and then with a couple of Mormon partners including his old Academy classmate, William H. King, Sutherland continued to maintain popularity with both Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah, which no doubt helped his political aspirations. The 1880s witnessed intense persecution and prosecution of polygamists, and Sutherland often represented Mormon men who were charged with unlawful cohabitation, including the president of the Academy’s Board of Education, Abraham O. Smoot, who was the father of Reed Smoot, Sutherland’s fellow Academy graduate and later his congressional colleague.

Political development

Sutherland appears to have had an interest in and ambition for political involvement and accomplishment at an early age. That involvement began during, and was aided by, his years at Brigham Young Academy:

While still an Academy student and just eighteen years old, Sutherland attended on September 18, 1880 the county convention of the Liberal party, organized specifically to combat the LDS Church-backed People’s party. The Liberal party platform consisted of the two-fold aim of outlawing plural marriage, or polygamy, and reducing the Church’s influence in local economics. Although “no county ticket was put in the field” by the Liberal party for that year’s elections, Sutherland himself became actively involved in politics for the first time when he was appointed party secretary. While it may seem odd for George to have taken an active part in a political party virulently opposed to and universally despised by many of his Mormon classmates, George’s involvement seems to have stemmed from his sincere dislike of polygamy and Mormon collectivist economic practices. Additionally, his father may have had some influence on the young Sutherland, as Alexander was eventually a Liberal party candidate for office in both Utah and Juab counties.

Sutherland’s early political involvement would lead him to run for office as he became old enough to do so, and led eventually to an evolution of Sutherland’s partisan affiliation:

Following his return to Utah in 1883 after a year in law school at the University of Michigan, Sutherland immediately dove back into local politics, specifically with the Liberal party. He ran for mayor of Provo in 1890 on that party’s ticket and lost. But his intelligence, leadership, and communication skills enabled him to gain support of non-Mormons as well as Mormons. After the Mormon Church disavowed polygamy in 1890 with an official proclamation known as the Manifesto, the Liberal party dissolved, and Sutherland thereafter aligned himself with the Republican party.

Sutherland’s involvement in state and national Republican Party politics would become the foundation for his eventual election to Congress and the U.S. Senate where he gained his connections to eventual Republican U.S. presidents, including Warren G. Harding, for whom Sutherland would become a personal advisor and who would later appoint him to the Supreme Court.

Whether from the influences of family, life in Utah Territory, education, employment or politics, Sutherland’s early years of life played a critical role in molding his intellect, political philosophy and character, and launching him on a path of civic achievement. It seems reasonable to conclude that without toddler Sutherland being brought to Utah by his parents, there may not have been a Justice Sutherland. Such is the power of the formative years of youth to the life trajectory of adulthood.

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