Roberts' Early Writings Show Individuality

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As a Harvard undergraduate, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts (search) picked an eerily prescient topic for one of his award-winning essays.

Roberts could have been writing about his own future when he delved into the life of the 19th-century statesman Daniel Webster (search), a conservative lawyer who rose to national prominence by arguing cases before the Supreme Court.

Democrats can take heart: Roberts struck an admiring tone when he described the ideal Websterian leader as an "independent man, not bound by the sectional and divisive influences of party politics."

"The Websterian leader was a man of character, a disinterested, self-sacrificing man of wisdom who continually worked with others of his sort to resolve any controversy which threatened national harmony," he wrote in his essay, "The Utopian Conservative: A Study of Continuity and Change in the Thought of Daniel Webster."

The 29-page essay, which won Harvard's Bowdoin Prize for excellence in English composition in 1976, is one of several written by Roberts that are on file at the Harvard University archives. He also wrote a prize-winning essay about Marxism and Bolshevism, while his 175-page undergraduate thesis was on the British Liberal Party.

Although his undergraduate essays don't carry the same weight as his Supreme Court briefs, they display a keen intellect and sharp wit.

Roberts wrote that Webster's presidential aspirations were "a disease which struck with astonishing regularity."

The essay also shows his early interest in conservatism, said Sydney Nathans, a history professor at Duke University.

Nathans, whose book "Daniel Webster and Jacksonian Democracy" served as a source for Roberts' paper, said the Harvard undergraduate appeared to be "wrestling with the role and effectiveness of conservatives in society."

Roberts concluded that Webster was "out of tune with his age" -- just as Nathans ventures that Roberts, a conservative-minded product of the Midwest, must have felt like a "a man whose views were on the margins" at Harvard.

"He seemed to understand early on that he and Webster, although placed in different centuries, shared a common question: How does one be a conservative in a society that is dubiously receptive to it?"