Fast facts on the personal life of William O. Douglas

  • Born October 16, 1898 in Maine Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota
  • Mother, Julia Bickford, born 1872 in Maine Township, Minnesota, died 1941 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Father, William Douglas, born 1856 in Canada, died 1904 in Portland, Oregon
  • Married Mildred Riddle in 1923, divorced 1953
  • Married Mercedes Hester Davidson in 1954, divorced 1966
  • Married Joan Martin in 1963, divorced 1966
  • Married Cathleen Heffernan in 1966 (married until death of William O. Douglas)
  • Died January 19, 1980 at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland
  • Interred in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery


1898 William Orville Douglas is born to the Reverend William and Julia Douglas in Maine, Minnesota.

1901 Three-year-old “Orville” is gravely ill from infantile paralysis, possibly polio. The Douglas family moves to Estrella, California.

1903 Family moves to Cleveland, Washington.

1904 Reverend Douglas, an itinerant minister described as a rigid Presbyterian, dies in a Portland, Oregon hospital. The widow Douglas moves her family to Yakima. William begins hiking to help him recover from a lingering weakness caused by a childhood illness. To compensate for his physical shortcomings, Douglas pushes himself to achieve academic excellence.

1906-1915 The Douglas household is a Spartan one. All three children work year-round to help support the family. Young Orville, as he was known, delivers newspapers, sets pins in a bowling alley, and works in an ice cream plant. None of these jobs has a more profound impact on him than working in the fields and orchards of Eastern Washington. As a result, he grows to know and respect the many different migrant groups and develops a profound compassion for society’s underprivileged.

Young William O. Douglas standing next to a tree in 1914.
Young William O. Douglas in the woods. 1914

1916 Graduates from Yakima High School as class valedictorian and is awarded a tuition scholarship by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) in the news

Yesterday, an old Supreme Court ruling that William O. Douglas was part of came back into the spotlight when Donald Trump declared a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border of the United States.

A president declaring a national emergency is far from unprecedented. It has “happened 60 times since the power was codified in 1976… most have been uncontroversial,” according an article written yesterday by Scott Horsley of NPR.

But, as detailed by Horsley, the circumstances around this declaration are different. Many politicians (and citizens) are unhappy, to say the least. Maybe they’re justified. The matter of the border wall emergency is likely to be decided in the courts.

Which brings us to Douglas: as outlined in The Daily Beast and The Washington Post, the 1952 Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer will likely play a key role in the arguments when that happens.

For a full synopsis of the case, go here. Essentially, steel workers were planning a strike during the Korean War. President Truman attempted to seize the steel mills and force them to continue production, citing steel as indispensable to the war effort, and claiming a work stoppage would “immediately jeopardize and imperil our national defense.”

With Douglas in the majority 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled against Truman. Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, stated, “[t]he President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of Berkeley Law School, writes that the courts “should quickly and emphatically hold that President Trump’s attempt to fund the border wall by declaring a national emergency is illegal and unconstitutional.” In Youngstown, he says, “The Court stressed that Truman’s actions violated the separation of powers and usurped the powers of Congress. Likewise, President Trump’s attempt to spend money for building a wall without congressional appropriation of funds for this purpose directly violates the Constitution.”

Additionally, Youngstown addressed the issue of property being taken, also relevant for Trump’s wall. Three Texas landowners have already filed a lawsuit after being told the wall would be built on their land. Justice Black wrote in Youngstown, “There is no statute that expressly authorizes the President to take possession of property as he did here. Nor is there any act of Congress… from which such a power can be fairly implied.”

Truman wasn’t happy about losing. In a 1972 interview with Eric Sevareid (below), Douglas recounts how afterwards the justices “all went and poured a lot of Bourbon down Harry Truman,” to try and cheer him up.

Times were a little different back then. It seems unlikely anyone will throw Trump a party if his border wall gets shot down in court.

Fast facts on the writing life of William O. Douglas

  • Published over 40 books in his lifetime
  • Wrote hundreds of articles for a wide array of publications
  • Writing has been translated into over 10 languages
  • Prolific writing and publication career also included thousands of letters of correspondence, transcribed speeches, and countless other documents
The translated writing and books of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas


1929 First published article, “A Functional Approach to the Law of Business Associations,” appears in March issue of Illinois Law Review.

1942 Writes article “Press Must be America’s Wartime University” for July issue of Life magazine.

1948 Writes article “Way to Win Without War” for July issue of Reader’s Digest magazine.

1949 Horseback-riding accident results in 23 broken ribs and nearly ends Douglas’ life. Writes first book, the memoir Of Men & Mountains, during his recovery. Published in 1950 by Harper, it remains his most critically acclaimed.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas at a book signing for his book "Of Men and Mountains". Black and white
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Douglas on global perspectives

From 1957 interview

“The trips were unconventional.  For the most part I kept out of the lanes of tourist travel.  While I saw some of the sights and visited the capitals, I spent most of my time in the mountains and villages, travelling on foot, by horseback, or by jeep and stopping to talk with most of the goatherds and peasants I met along the way.  I usually carried complete camping equipment with me, put my bedroll down in or near a village at night, and sat up late discussing problems with the villagers or a local khan or kalantar.  In a word, I spent most of my time with the common people of these countries, rather than with officialdom.”

Strange Lands and Friendly People (1951)

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Douglas on freedom

From 1957 interview.

“The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”

The Right of the People (1958)

“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

–September 10, 1976 letter to the Washington State Bar Association

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Douglas on mountains and wilderness

Excerpt from 1957 interview

“For myself it is a testing ground of my strength and endurance, a pitting of finite man against one of the great rigors of the universe.  A man – or girl – can get to know himself – or herself- on the mountain.  He gets to know his inner strength-the power of the soul to add to the power of the legs and lungs. In the solitude of the mountains – especially on the highest peaks- he is close to the heavens, close to the outer limits of the earthly zone.  It is for me easy, therefore, to have communion with God and to come to understand terms of my own being.”

–November 6, 1954 letter to a Seattle schoolgirl, The Douglas Letters (1987)

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Fast facts on the political and professional life of William O. Douglas

  • B.A. in English and Economics from Whitman College, law degree from Columbia
  • Professor at Yale from 1928 to 1934
  • Spent six years at SEC (1934-1939), rising the ranks to Chairman
  • Sworn into office on Supreme Court on April 17, 1939, replacing Justice Louis D. Brandeis
  • Served as Supreme Court Justice for 36 years, 211 days, the longest tenure in American history
  • Wrote over 1,200 opinions while a Supreme Court Justice, a record
  • Also holds SCOTUS record for most dissenting opinions
  • Four impeachment attempts are the most ever for a sitting justice


1916 Graduates from Yakima High School as class valedictorian and is awarded a tuition scholarship by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

1920 Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman. Begins teaching English and Latin at Yakima High School.

1922 Enters Columbia Law School in New York City. After one year, he makes the staff of the prestigious Columbia Law Review. Among his classmates at Columbia are Thomas E. Dewey and Paul Robeson.

1925 Graduates second in his class from Columbia. Begins professional career at Wall Street law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine, and Wood. Teaches at Columbia on the side.

1926 Briefly returns to Yakima to practice law, then accepts a position teaching full-time at Columbia Law School.

1928 Accepts a teaching position at Yale University.

1934 Accepts a position with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

1936 Is appointed commissioner of the SEC.

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