Edward John Phelps

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Edward John Phelps
Professor Edward J Phelps.jpg
United States Minister to the United Kingdom
In office
May 19, 1885 – January 31, 1889
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byJames Russell Lowell
Succeeded byRobert Todd Lincoln
President of the American Bar Association
In office
Preceded byBenjamin Bristow
Succeeded byClarkson Nott Potter
Second Comptroller of the Treasury
In office
Preceded byHiland Hall
Succeeded byJohn M. Brodhead
Personal details
Born(1822-07-11)July 11, 1822
Middlebury, Vermont
DiedMarch 9, 1900(1900-03-09) (aged 77)
New Haven, Connecticut
Resting placeGreenmount Cemetery, Burlington, Vermont
Political partyDemocratic
EducationMiddlebury College
Yale Law School
OccupationLawyer, politician, educator
Known forSecond Comptroller of the Treasury
A founder of the American Bar Association

Edward John Phelps (July 11, 1822 – March 9, 1900) was a lawyer and diplomat from Vermont. He is notable for his service as Envoy to Court of St. James's from 1885 to 1889. In addition, Phelps was a founder of the American Bar Association, and served as its president from 1880 to 1881.

A prominent Democrat even as Vermont was trending towards the Republicans, Phelps was the son of Senator Samuel S. Phelps and his first wife, Frances (Shurtleff) Phelps. Edward Phelps graduated from Middlebury College in 1840, taught school in Virginia, and studied for a career as an attorney, first at Yale Law School, and then in the office of Middlebury attorney Horatio Seymour. He practiced in Burlington, and served as Second Comptroller of the Treasury from 1851 to 1853. He supported the Union, but as a critic of what he regarded as the excesses of the Abraham Lincoln administration. He served as a delegate to the Vermont constitutional convention of 1870, and was one of the founders of the American Bar Association. Phelps served as ABA president from 1880 to 1881. In 1880, he was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont.

Phelps was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889. He later taught law at Yale Law School, the University of Vermont, and Boston University. He supported Republicans after 1896, in response to his disagreement with the Democratic Party's turn towards the Free Silver movement. He died in New Haven, Connecticut, and was buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Burlington.


Phelps' father Samuel S. Phelps had been a U.S. Senator from Vermont. Edward Phelps was born in Middlebury, graduated from Middlebury College in 1840, and worked as a school teacher and principal in Virginia. He studied law at the Yale Law School, completed his studies in the office of Horatio Seymour, and began practicing in Middlebury in 1843. Phelps moved to Burlington in 1845.[1]

Professional and academic life[edit]

Phelps practiced in Burlington with different partners at various times, the most prominent being David Allen Smalley. Phelps and Smalley included George F. Edmunds among the prospective attorneys who studied law with them.

From 1851 to 1853, Phelps served as Second Comptroller of the Treasury. He then practiced law in New York City as a partner in Wakeman, Latting & Phelps, the senior partner of which was Abram Wakeman. He returned to Burlington in 1857 and resumed practicing law.[1] Originally a Whig, after that party's demise he became a Democrat. He served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1870.[2]

Phelps was one of the founders of the American Bar Association and was its president in 1880-1881. From 1881 until his death he was Kent Professor of Law at Yale Law School.[2]

Political activities[edit]

In 1880 Phelps was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont. Democrats were a perpetual minority in Vermont, and lost every statewide election from the 1850s to the 1960s. 1880 was no exception, and Phelps was excoriated as an unrepentant Copperhead:

Had he maintained his resolution to accept no political nomination, the memory of his attitude during the memory of his attitude from 1860 to 1865 might have quite died; but the Democratic nomination and his speech of acceptance, in which, with surprising want of tact, he aired afresh his old hatred of the African and attacked the Southern Republicans, white and black, with a virulence which few Southern Democrats could equal … have brought it into strong prominence. Still stronger light has been thrown on it by the publication of a careful stenographic report of a speech made by Mr. Phelps in September, 1864, before a little club of Copperheads in Burlington. In this he called Mr. Lincoln a 'wooden-head' and a 'twentieth-rate back country attorney,' declared that the North was fighting simply to 'turn loose all the [racial epithet]' and 'whitewash the [racial epithet] in the blood of millions[.].[3]

Phelps was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889, and in 1893 served as senior counsel for the United States before the international tribunal at Paris to settle the Bering Sea Controversy. His closing argument,[4] requiring eleven days for its delivery, was an exhaustive review of the case. The ruling favored the British, and the Americans were denied the exclusive jurisdiction they had claimed.

Phelps lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Vermont in 1881-1883, and on constitutional law at Boston University in 1882-1883, and delivered numerous addresses, among them The United States Supreme Court and the Sovereignty of the People at the centennial celebration of the Federal Judiciary in 1890, and an oration at the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument, unveiled in 1891 at the centennial of Vermont's admission to the Union.

In politics, Phelps was always conservative, opposing the anti-slavery movement before 1860, the free-silver movement in 1896, when he supported the Republican presidential ticket, and after 1898 becoming an ardent "anti-expansionist."[2]

President Grover Cleveland intended to appoint him as U.S. Chief Justice in 1888, but Phelps was concerned that his tenure as ambassador to the Court of St. James's in Great Britain would cause the Democratic Party to lose the support of Irish Americans, and he declined.[1]

In 1893, Phelps was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.[5]

Phelps died in New Haven, Connecticut. Former Yale University president Timothy Dwight V eulogized Phelps.[6] He was buried in Burlington's Greenmount Cemetery.


Edward John Phelps married Mary S. Haight in 1847; the marriage produced 3 children: Edward Haight Phelps (1847–1884), Mary Haight Phelps (1857–1911) who married Horatio Loomis, and Charles Pierpont Phelps (1861–1912).[7]


"The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything." From a speech given at the Mansion House in London on January 24, 1899, quoting Bishop W. C. Magee of Peterborough in 1868.[8]

"Better a hundred times an honest and capable administration of an erroneous policy than a corrupt and incapable administration of a good one." Spoken at a dinner of the New York Chamber of Commerce.[8]


  1. ^ a b c "Edward John Phelps". Find a Grave. Retrieved September 3, 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ New York Times, "Vermont Ready to Vote," September 1, 1880, page 1
  4. ^ John Phelps, Edward; John Griffith McCullough (1901). Orations & Essays of Edward John Phelps: Diplomat and Statesman. Harper & Brothers. p. 475.
  5. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  6. ^ "Funeral of E.J. Phelps" (PDF). The New York Times. March 12, 1900.
  7. ^ "Obituary. Charles Pierpont Phelps". Yale Alumni Weekly. 21 (20): 500. 2 February 1912.
  8. ^ a b "Edward J. Phelps, American jurist and diplomatist".

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Phelps, Edward John" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Phelps, Edward John". Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.