Ervin, Sam J. (Sam James), 1896-1985

Alternative names
Birth 1896-09-27
Death 1985-04-23

Biographical notes:

Ervin was a North Carolina member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

From the description of TLS, 1968 October 8, Washington, D.C. to Bishop Earl G. Hunt / Sam J. Ervin, Jr. (Haverford College Library). WorldCat record id: 43052717

Samuel James Ervin, Jr., was a Burke County, N.C., attorney, North Carolina legislator, judge, U.S. senator, and long-time champion of civil liberties. Ervin was first appointed to the N.C. General Assembly in 1923, where he also served in 1925 and 1931. After the death of his brother Joseph W. Ervin (1901-1945), Ervin was appointed to the House of Representatives. In 1954, Ervin was appointed to the U.S. Senate, where he served on the Judiciary Committee, the Rackets Committee (Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor Management), and the Watergate Committee (Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.

From the description of Sam J. Ervin private papers, 1898-1990 (Subgroup B). (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 33082378

See biographical note in Sam J. Ervin Papers, Subgroup A: Senate Records (#3847A).

From the guide to the Sam J. Ervin Papers, Subgroup B: Private Papers, 1898-1990, (Southern Historical Collection)

Samuel James Ervin was an eminent North Carolina lawyer, jurist, legislator, congressman, and United States Senator, 1954-1974. Ervin chaired the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Watergate Committee), 1973-1974.

From the description of Sam J. Ervin Senate records, 1954-1974 (Subgroup A) [manuscript]. (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 25754289

James Batten of the Charlotte Observer wrote in 2 April 1967: To a casual visitor peering down from the Senate gallery, he might look like some windbag Senator Claghorn, a waking Washington stereotype. There, behind a desk piled high with lawbooks, is Senator Samuel James Ervin, Jr., eyebrows rippling up and down, fulminating against the latest civil rights bill and regaling the Senate with the latest cracker-barrel humor from the mountains of North Carolina. But if stereotypes are always misleading, they are downright laughable in the case of Sam Ervin. After thirteen years in the Senate, Ervin still regularly enrages first the liberals and then the conservatives. He defies all the easy generalizations of political journalism.

Samuel James Ervin, Jr. (b. 27 September 1896), eminent North Carolina lawyer, jurist, legislator, member of Congress, and United States senator, was descended from a family of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who had migrated from Ulster to the coast of South Carolina in 1732. The family originally settled in Williamsburg County, S.C.

John Witherspoon Ervin (27 March 1823-15 April 1902), Ervin's grandfather, became a teacher in Clarendon County, S.C., his graduation from South Carolina College in the early 1840s. He married Laura Catherine Nelson on 21 November 1844, and the couple eventually had six sons and three daughters. The family lived in Sumter and Manning, S.C., where John Ervin became the first editor of Clarendon County's earliest newspaper, the Clarendon Banner . Ervin stayed in Manning until 1874, when he accepted an opportunity to teach in Morganton, N.C. Though financially torn and emotionally embittered by the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, Ervin wrote a great deal of poetry and fiction for various newspapers and periodicals until his death in 1902.

John Ervin's fifth son, Samuel James Ervin (21 June 1855-13 July 1944), was born in Sumter and reared in Manning. During his youth, Samuel Ervin attended Manning Academy, a school conducted by his father. After the family moved to Morganton, the young man served as deputy postmaster for the community between 1875 and 1880. He studied law in his spare time and passed the North Carolina bar examination in 1879. Early in his career, Ervin emulated other lawyers in the state by wearing a long-tailed coat and pointed beard, and he maintained his distinguished and somewhat awesome appearance throughout his life.

Ervin was extremely thorough in his study of the law and from modest beginnings became one of the most prominent lawyers of his time in North Carolina. He handled civil and criminal cases not only in Burke County, but also in the neighboring mountain counties of Avery, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Mitchell, and Watauga. Though denied the privilege of a college education, Ervin possessed several of the qualities that would characterize his son's career: a devout respect for the Constitution coupled with a detestation of governmental tyranny; a devotion to civil liberties coupled with a sincere belief in the individual's responsibility for his own welfare; and a mastery of the King James version of the Bible coupled with a hatred for religious and other forms of intolerance.

Samuel Ervin married his second cousin, Laura Theresa Powe (25 June 1865-14 June 1956), on 6 October 1886 in Morganton. Laura was born in Salisbury, N.C., in 1865, and came with her parents to Burke County in 1869. She was educated in private schools in Charlotte and Morganton, changed her affiliation from the Episcopal Church of her parents to the Presbyterian Church of her new husband upon their marriage, and became president of the Burke County chapter of the American Red Cross during the First World War. Mr. and Mrs. Ervin spent the remainder of their married years living in Morganton.

Samuel James Ervin, Jr., the fifth of the ten children of Samuel and Laura Ervin, was born in Morganton in 1896. Sam attended public schools in Morganton, and developed a love for history and reading. Ervin spent a mischievous and relatively carefree childhood in Morganton and graduated from high school (which went through the eleventh grade) in 1913. Ervin then enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and attended college there between 1913 and 1917.

While at the University of North Carolina, Ervin studied under several men who had a lasting impact on his thought and career. He studied poetry and literature under John Manning Booker, Daniel Huger Bacot, and Edwin A. Greenlaw. He developed a capacity for the study of history under J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton. He gained insight into the areas of philosophy and ethics under Henry Horace Williams; constitutional law under Lucius Polk McGehee; and Latin under Wilbur Hugh Royster, the father of journalist Vermont Royster.

Ervin was an excellent student who served as class historian during his junior and senior years at UNC. He won historical prizes offered by the Colonial Dames for the best essays on colonial North Carolina, and two of his articles were published by the History Department in the James Sprunt Historical Publications . Ervin also became assistant editor of the University Magazine ; a member of the Dialectic Literary Society; vice-president of his senior class; a commencement marshal; and permanent president of the class of 1917, by whom he was voted most popular and best egg. Ervin was elected to membership in Sigma Upsilon because of his literary ability, and to Phi Delta Phi because of his knowledge of law.

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, Sam Ervin volunteered for the armed forces in May, a month prior to graduation. He underwent officer training at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and, in September, sailed for France, where he would spend 18 months serving in Company I, 28th Infantry Regiment, First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. Ervin received the Silver Star for gallantry in action in May 1918 at Cantigny, the first battle in Europe in which American Troops were engaged. He was wounded in the left foot at Cantigny, but received a more serious wound in July. Ervin was hit by a shell fragment while leading an advance party on an attack of a German machine gun post at Soissons, during the Aisle-Marne offensive. For his heroism in this battle, Ervin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In addition, he received the Purple Heart and the French Fourragere for his service during the war.

Though Sam Ervin was much shaken by the death and destruction that he had encountered in Europe, he returned to the United States in April 1919, immediately took a refresher course in law at UNC that summer, was admitted to the North Carolina bar in August, and enrolled at Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, Ervin developed a deep respect for the law. He especially admired Roscoe Pound's emphasis on individual liberties and the arguments that Zechariah Chafee, Jr., made in defense of such libertarian principles as a individual's freedom of speech. Ervin graduated from Harvard with the Bachelor of Law degree in 1922, and returned to Morganton to join his father in the practice of law.

Prior to his graduation from law school, Ervin received news from home that he had been nominated as Burke County's Democratic Party candidate for the state legislature. Although he had not actively sought political office, Ervin accepted the nomination as his duty, won the election, and went to Raleigh in January 1923 as a legislator. During his months in the North Carolina General Assembly, Ervin spent the time he had back home studying and practicing law in a room adjoining his father's small office building directly across from the courthouse in Morganton. Ervin would return to the state legislature for two other terms, in 1925 and 1931.

On 18 June 1924, Sam Ervin married Margaret Bruce Bell of Concord, whom he had met in Morganton in 1916. Margaret, who received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Converse College in 1919, traveled and taught civics and English at Concord High School before their marriage. At Converse, she had been president of the Young Women's Christian Association and a member of Enigma Club and the Senior Order. In 1926, the couple had a son, Samuel James Ervin III, who would eventually follow his father in the study and practice of law. The Ervins then had two daughters: Leslie (b. 1930) and Laura Powe (b. 1934).

During the 1925 session of the state legislature, Ervin made his first strong speech in favor of civil liberties. The General Assembly was on the verge of passing a bill to prohibit the teaching of evolution in the North Carolina public school system when Ervin quietly stood and dismantled the arguments of those who supported the bill. Remarking that it would gratify the monkeys to know that they are absolved from all responsibility for the conduct of the human race, Ervin employed the subtle, home-spun humor and legal acuity that would characterize his later career as a United States senator. North Carolina's anti-evolution bill would eventually go down to defeat in the 1925 legislature.

While in the state legislature, Ervin also served on the Judiciary Committee. In this capacity he supported changes in judicial procedure and higher spending for education, and sponsored legislation both to allow juries to recommend mercy in capital cases, and to care for the employment needs of the deaf. In fact, Ervin throughout his career initiated and supported significant legislation to aid in the relief of the physically and mentally handicapped. Ervin preferred, however, to stay out of the political limelight during the early years of his legal career, and devoted his energies toward building a successful law practice in Morganton.

Between the mid-1930s and his appointment to the United States Senate in 1954, Ervin accepted several judicial appointments. He served as a judge in the Burke County Criminal Court between 1935 and 1937 and was appointed to the North Carolina Superior Court by Governor Clyde R. Hoey in 1937. After suffering from a bleeding ulcer, Ervin resigned from the Superior Court in 1943 to resume his practice of law in Morganton.

Ervin, however, was again appointed to fill a political office. His brother, Joseph W. Ervin, was a member of the United States House of Representatives from the Tenth Congressional District of North Carolina. Joseph, who had from childhood suffered with a painful bone disease, committed suicide on Christmas day of 1945, and his brother was called upon as a compromise candidate who could break the political deadlock in his home district by filling the vacant seat. Ervin served in the House in 1946, for the sole purpose of completing his brother's term. He refused renomination and returned to his law practice later that year. Ervin was then appointed by Governor Gregg Cherry as an associate justice in the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1948, and served in that capacity for six years. During that time, Ervin wrote several noteworthy decisions and probably would have become chief justice had circumstances not again intervened.

North Carolina Senator Clyde R. Hoey died in office on 12 May 1954, and Governor William B. Umstead was left with the task of choosing a successor. One of the leading contenders for the Senate seat, Irving Carlyle of Winston-Salem, hurt his own political fortunes by encouraging a stance of compliance with the May 17 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court. Again, Sam Ervin was summoned as a compromise candidate to fill a vacant seat--this time in the United States Senate--although he accepted the appointment with some misgivings. Ervin was sworn into office on 11 June 1954 by Richard M. Nixon, then vice-president under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and began his 20-year tenure as a United States senator from North Carolina.

One of Ervin's first committee assignments as a senator was one that several of his peers were hesitant to accept. The Select Committee to Study Censure Charges against Senator Joseph McCarthy was convened in 1954, at a time when McCarthy was browbeating witnesses and finding alleged Communists in all areas of American life. In response to the censure investigation, McCarthy charged that the Communist Party had extended its tentacles to certain members of the United States Senate itself, including Arthur Watkins, chair of the Select Committee; Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate minority leader; and Sam Ervin. It was at this point that Ervin rose in a special session of the Senate and made a pivotal speech against McCarthy that helped bring about the overwhelming vote to censure the senator from Wisconsin.

Another challenging committee assignment for Ervin was his 1957 appointment to the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor or Management, more widely known as the Rackets Committee. Between 1957 and 1959, Ervin worked closely with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was the committee's chief counsel. After the labor hearings, during which Ervin questioned and dented the credibility of union leaders like Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, Ervin and Kennedy jointly sponsored major labor reform legislation designed to combat corruption in unions and to protect the rights of rank-and-file members.

During the first decade of Ervin's career in the Senate, he steadfastly opposed civil rights legislation for African Americans. He disagreed with the 1954 school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court and fought against the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills that he, along with other southern members of congress, helped to water down. Ervin's hardest fight, however, was against the civil rights bill sent to Congress by President Kennedy in 1963, which granted sweeping powers to the federal government in an effort to eliminate obstruction of African American voting, to desegregate all public facilities and public schools, to end employment discrimination, and to strengthen the United States Civil Rights Commission.

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ervin was in a unique and pivotal position to oppose the efforts of the Kennedy Administration. Along with other southern senators like John Stennis of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Ervin repeatedly came into conflict with the Administration, and especially with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The basis of Ervin's opposition to civil rights legislation was his understanding of the limits the Constitution was designed to place on the power of the federal government. Always a champion of civil liberties for whites and blacks throughout his legal and judicial career, Ervin believed that the Civil Rights Act (finally passed in June 1964) both posed a severe threat to individual liberties, and increased the likelihood of government tyranny. The tide of events, however, made Ervin's fight against civil rights legislation one of few that he would lose in the Senate.

During virtually his entire Senate career, Ervin served on the Judiciary Committee, and this was perhaps his most important committee assignment. Ervin was chair of three subcommittees of the Judiciary Committee--Constitutional Rights, Separation of Powers, and Revision and Codification of the Laws. It was in the capacity of a powerful member of the Judiciary Committee that Ervin not only obstructed civil rights legislation, but also sponsored and advocated several positive pieces of legislation in support of civil liberties.

Ervin's major legislative accomplishments in the area of civil liberties came after his appointment in 1961 as chair of the Constitutional Rights Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. Ervin sponsored the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, which provided legal counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases. The Bail Reform Act of 1966 offered the chance for defendants who could not afford bail to be released from custody pending trial. In addition to these measures, Ervin opposed the Nixon Administration's efforts to pass the District of Columbia Crime Bill of 1969. While liberal congressmen hedged because of the Administration's appeal for law and order, Ervin sharply attacked provisions such as the preventive detention of suspects, and a no-knock clause that would allow police to enter suspects' homes without knocking. Ironically, liberals and African Americans who had attacked Ervin for his stand against civil rights now praised him for his defense of the rights of suspected criminals.

In 1964, Ervin also sponsored the District of Columbia Hospitalization of the Mentally Ill Act, which served as a model law that other states quickly copied. This legislation encouraged voluntary hospitalization, tried to remove the stigma attached to mental illness, and asserted a bill of rights for the mentally ill, including the right to treatment and to periodic review. Ervin's advocacy of such legislation stemmed in great measure from painful visits he had made to observe the operations of the North Carolina state mental facility at Morganton.

Ervin further sponsored the Military Justice Act of 1968, which protected the rights of servicemen in military courts of justice, and became an advocate of the constitutional rights of Native Americans as well. He had introduced legislation in 1966 that would guarantee the same rights to reservation Indians that white Americans enjoyed and for which African Americans had been struggling. When it was apparent that his Indian Bill of Rights was being allowed to die in committee, Ervin attached his bill as an amendment to the Fair Housing Bill. Taunting senate liberals by noting the inconsistency that anybody supporting a bill to secure constitutional rights to black people would be opposed to giving constitutional rights to red people, Ervin won Senate approval for his amendment and saw it become law.

Ervin fought against a number of threats he perceived to civil liberties during the latter part of his Senate career. He opposed the Voluntary School Prayer Amendment introduced by Senator Everett Dirksen in 1966, on the grounds that the civil liberties of students and teachers in the public schools would be violated if prayer were allowed in the classroom. Every year from 1966 into the early 1970s, Ervin introduced legislation to protect the privacy of federal employees, who were required to supply personal information and take lie detector tests in order to secure work with the federal government.

Several of Ervin's civil liberties battles were waged against the Nixon Administration. For example, when President Nixon issued an executive order to grant the long-dormant Subversive Activities Control Board vast new powers and funding, Ervin helped defeat the effort by attacking it as a violation of an individual's free expression of ideas under the First Amendment. In the early 1970s, Ervin not only was instrumental in defending the press's freedom to conceal its sources; he also worked to expose the military's practice of surveillance of civilians considered dangerous by the government, especially those people who exercised their right to demonstrate peacefully against the War in Vietnam.

Although Ervin was willing to protect the civil liberties of those opposing American involvement in Vietnam, he supported the war effort. Ervin's primary regret regarding Vietnam, in fact, was that America did not demonstrate a stronger commitment to win the war. Ervin was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as chair of that committee's Subcommittee on the Status of Forces Treaty. Throughout his Senate career, Ervin supported heavy military spending, the development of a strong nuclear deterrent, and the draft.

Ervin was also a member of the Government Operations Committee and was chair of that committee in the last two years of his Senate career. He supported most traditional Senate procedures like unlimited debate, seniority, and denial of public financial disclosure. At the same time, Ervin opposed a variety of executive practices like the impoundment of appropriated funds and the plea of executive privilege before investigative committees.

That latter weapon was used against the Senate to an unprecedented extent during the Nixon Administration. Sam Ervin will perhaps be best remembered for chairing, from 1973 until 1974, the Senate's Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which became known popularly as the Watergate Committee. After five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, the White House began a campaign to cover up both the break-in itself and the ensuing destruction of evidence and intimidation of witnesses, most of which was financed with campaign funds from the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Ervin worked to sort out the legal and constitutional complexities surrounding the activities of the Nixon Administration, and he did so with a degree of the humor and home-spun story-telling that had characterized his speeches during his previous Senate career. The assignment to chair the committee had been offered because Ervin was a senator without presidential aspirations who was most respected by both Democrats and Republicans, Ervin accepted the chair out of both a sense of duty and the belief that Watergate posed the most serious challenge ever to the United States Constitution.

The Watergate affair ended with Richard Nixon's resignation, and with the preservation of the Constitution that Sam Ervin so cherished. Ervin made the decision not to run for re-election in late 1973, and he left the Senate at the close of the 93rd Congress in 1974. Ervin retired to his home in Morganton, where he became actively engaged in writing, practicing law, doing historical research, and traveling and giving lectures. But primarily Sam Ervin settled down with his wife Margaret in the only real hometown he had ever know, aware of--but too modest to acknowledge--the enormous impact he had made on twentieth-century American political history. (Mitchell Ducey, 1984)

From the guide to the Sam J. Ervin Papers, Subgroup A: Senate Records, 1954-1975, (Southern Historical Collection)


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