Biography and History

Arthur Garfield Hays was born in Rochester, New York on December 12, 1881. His father and mother, both of German descent, belonged to prospering families in the clothing manufacturing industry. After graduating from City College of New York in 1902 and going on to receive his law degree from Columbia in 1905, Hays formed a law firm with two of his former classmates that gained prominence representing German interests in World War I.

Hays was active in civil liberties issues before becoming general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. From this point one can recognize the emergence of what many have called Hays's “dual personality,” in which he became a wealthy lawyer who represented the interests of power and fame (his more prominent clients ranged from Wall Street brokers and best-selling authors to notorious gamblers and the Dionne quintuplets)--while at the same time rigorously defending the individual liberty of victims of discriminatory laws.

The list of famous cases in which Hays took part is lengthy, including the Scopes trial (often called the “monkey trial”) in 1925 in which a school teacher in Tennessee was tried for teaching evolution; the Sacco and Vanzetti case in which two Italian anarchists in Boston were put to death in 1927 for a murder they denied committing; and the Scottsboro case where eight black men from Alabama were condemned to die in 1931 for allegedly attacking two white women. Hays also attended the Reichstag trial in Berlin on behalf of Georgi Dmitrov, a Bulgarian Communist tried by Nazis in 1933 for burning the Reichstag.

In addition to his work as a lawyer, Hays wrote an astounding number of books and articles. As a gifted writer and eloquent debater, he added his perspective to virtually every individual rights issue of his day. His autobiography, entitled City Lawyer: the Autobiography of a Law Practice (1942), provides a colorful account of his more noteworthy cases, and his articles and book reviews demonstrate his wide-ranging knowledge of a nation and a world experiencing dramatic change in the way individual rights were perceived.

Hays married Blanche Marks in 1908 and divorced her in 1924. They had one daughter, Mrs. Lora Spindell. He married Aline Davis Fleisher in 1924, who died in 1944. They also had a daughter, Mrs. Jane Butler. After more than four decades at the center of the individual rights debate, Hays died of a heart attack on December 14, 1954.

Source: From the finding aid for MC072

  • Arthur Garfield Hays Papers. 1915-1955 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC072

    The Arthur Garfield Hays Papers consist of correspondence, case files, speeches, articles, books, news clippings, and photos which document his career as a New York City lawyer and general counsel for the ACLU.

  • Osmond K. Fraenkel Diaries. 1933-1968 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC192

    This collection contains excerpts from the diaries of Osmond K. Fraenkel, a New York City lawyer who served on the ACLU's Board of Directors and as one of its general counsel. These excerpts discuss the cases in which Fraenkel was involved.