John Garibaldi Sargent was born in Ludlow, Vermont, on October 13, 1860. He graduated from Black River Academy in 1883, a few years before Calvin Coolidge did, and went on to earn a B.A. degree from Tufts College in 1887, and a M.A. in 1912. He studied law in the interim and was admitted to the Vermont bar in 1890. Early in his college years, Sargent became active in the Zeta Psi Kappa Society; through the fraternity’s activities he was introduced to many of Boston’s influential politicians, later including the Coolidges.Sargent joined the firm of Stickney, Sargent & Skeels, then served as State’s attorney in Windsor County, Vermont, until 1900. From 1902 to 1908, he argued the majority of his cases in federal court, and he established a national reputation as a trial lawyer.
In 1908 Sargent was named attorney general of Vermont. While in office, he was involved in one of the leading cases in the history of Vermont’s highest court. In Sabre v. Rutland Railroad Co. (1912), attorneys for the railroad argued that the powers enjoyed by Vermont’s Public Service Commission (which regulated railroads) violated the Vermont Constitution by commingling legislative, executive, and judicial functions. Sargent, arguing for Sabre and the state, disagreed. His position was that the Separation of Powers was only violated when one branch exercised all of the powers of another branch. The court agreed with Sargent and recognized the quasijudicial powers of executive-branch state agencies. The decision led the way for commissions and boards across the country to wield court-like powers.
Sargent came to a prominence he had never sought, because Charles Dawes, Coolidge’s Vice President slept through a tie vote in the Senate.
Early in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge had successfully nominated his Attorney General, Harlan Fiske Stone, to take a seat on the Supreme Court. This created a vacancy in the Attorney General’s office. Coolidge, with little consultation with Congress or his staff, chose Charles B. Warren of Detroit, Michigan. As it turned out, Warren had been counsel for the Michigan Sugar Company and they were rumored to have violated some anti-trust laws, which was enough for Progressives and Democrats to oppose Mr. Warren’s confirmation. However, on March 10th, as Mr. Warren’s name came before the Senate and Charles Dawes in a close vote, the Vice President was napping at the Willard Hotel, missing a chance to cast a tie-breaking vote and to avoid a stinging defeat for Coolidge. Thus Warren was rejected. Biographer Fuess calls this “the most humiliating defeat of Coolidge’s career.” Coolidge obstinately refused to budge, re-submitted Warren only to see him rejected rejected more decisively, 46 to 39. Then Coolidge wanted a recess appointment, but Warren refused.
Coolidge then turned to his old Vermont neighbor and friend, John Garibaldi Sargent, calling him long-distance to affirm that he would serve if nominated, then submitted his name.
Here’s how Col. Edmund W. Starling, the president’s Secret Service detail, recounts the events:
(The morning after the decisive rejection) I was called into the President’s office. He was in conference with Rush Holland, Assistant Attorney-General. The President excused himself to Holland and took me into the small anteroom between his office and the cabinet room. He walked over to the window and took hold of the curtain cord, twisting it and tying it into knots. For several minutes he looked out the window, saying nothing. Then abruptly he asked me a question: “Colonel, do you think your friend John Garibaldi Sargent would make a good Attorney-General?” My friend? “So far as I know I do not think you could make a wiser choice,” I said. “I have leárned to love and to respect Mr. Sargent. I know he is completely loyal to you, and I think he would be a credit to your administration.”
Then there was another silence. More knots were tied in the window cord. Then: “Do you think you can locate him?” “Yes, I heard from his son-in-law, Sam Pearson, just a few days ago. He said Mr. Sargent was in Montpelier and would be there for several weeks.” “Well, you’d better telephone him to get his grip packed and be ready to catch that midnight train out of White River Junction any day now to come down here and visit you.”
Earlier in his book of memoirs, Starling had characterized Sargent as “a great, shambling fellow, careless in his dress and manner but amazing in the breadth of his knowledge and wisdom. He had a tremendous library – thousands of volumes lined the walls.
Sargent was unanimously approved. Tall, ungainly, shambling and somewhat careless in terms of dress, the 6 feet 3, 225 lbs Sargent (on the Tufts College football team, he was known as “Jumbo”) must have made quite the impression when he first arrived in the capital – Starling recounts that he stepped off the train with an old bulldog pipe in his mouth and a pair of enormous rubber overshoes strapped to the single small suitcase he was carrying. But he was in fact a first-class lawyer and highly competent U.S. Attorney General. Chief Justice Taft praised Sargent, saying that the Department of Justice was in better shape under him than at any time before within his knowledge.
Sargent appears to have had a good relationship with Coolidge. He socialized with the Coolidges, visited the Summer White House at White Pine Camp in 1926 and in 1928 accompanied the Coolidges to Northampton and to Vermont to tour the 1927 flood damage. His term was uncontroversial. Sargent was not known as a leader in the fight for racial equality, but he did ask the president to commute the sentence of Marcus Garvey in 1927. Garvey was a political activist from Jamaica who had been convicted of MailFraud for his efforts to recruit black Americans for his Universal Negro Improvement League and African Communities Association Garvey v. United States (1925). The tainted proceeding against Garvey was orchestrated by an overzealous young Justice Department attorney named J. Edgar Hoover.
Sargent was outspoken in his disapproval of Hoover’s tactics in the Garvey case, and he was among the first attorneys general to condemn the gathering of evidence through Wiretapping, a tactic approved by Hoover when he was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Testifying before a congressional committee, Sargent said, “Wire tapping, Entrapment, or use of any illegal or unethical tactics in procuring information will not be tolerated….”
In 1929, Sargent returned to Vermont and again took an active role in his law firm. In his later years, Sargent devoted his time and energy to local businesses and community organizations. When years of political infighting finally forced the reorganization of Vermont’s railroads in the early 1930s, Sargent was appointed to oversee the process.
Sargent died at his home in Ludlow, Vermont, on March 5, 1939 at 78 from a heart ailment and complications.