Hughes was a precocious youngster. At age 6 he found public school boring and confining, submitted to his parents a plan of study for home schooling, which his parents accepted. Shortly before his 12th birthday, his family moved from Glens Falls, New York to New York City, where his parents enrolled him in public school, and he graduated from high school at age 13, second in his class.
He went to Madison College (now Colgate University) for two years, then transferred to Brown University, where he graduated in 1881 at age 19, youngest in his class, receiving third-highest honors. For the next year, he worked at Delaware Academy, in Delhi, New York where he taught Greek, Latin, and algebra, in order to earn money to enter law school. He endered Columbia University law school in 1882, and graduated in 1884 with highest honors.
In 1905 he was appointed counsel to a New York state legislative committee investigating utility rates. He uncovered enough evidence of fraud and corruption to get gas rates lowered in New York City. As a result, he was appointed to investigate the insurance industry in New York.
He served as Governor of New York from 1907-1910, defeating William Randolph Hearst in the 1906 election to gain the position, and being the only Republican statewide candidate to win office. In 1908 he was offered the vice-presidential nomination by William Howard Taft, but declined it to run again for Governor. Subsequently he was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, serving 1910-16, when he resigned to be Republican candidate for election as President of the United States (See U.S. presidential election, 1916). Defeated by Woodrow Wilson in a close election, he returned to private law practice. In 1920, Hughes favored the ratification of the treaty creating the League of Nations.
His next position in the United States government was Secretary of State under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921-1925. As Secretary of State, he called a conference in Washington, D. C which produced a treaty on armament limitation. He did not, however, exert himself on behalf of the United States' adhering to the League of Nations during his service as Secretary of State. In the 1920s he served as a judge of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague, The Netherlands. He was appointed Chief Justice by Herbert Hoover in 1930, serving until 1941. As Chief Justice, he led the fight against Franklin Delano Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Supreme Court.