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Francis Biddle

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Francis Biddle
Biddle in 1935
58th United States Attorney General
In office
August 26, 1941 – June 26, 1945
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Preceded byRobert H. Jackson
Succeeded byTom C. Clark
25th United States Solicitor General
In office
January 22, 1940 – August 25, 1941
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byRobert H. Jackson
Succeeded byCharles Fahy
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
In office
March 4, 1939 – January 22, 1940
Appointed byFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byJoseph Buffington
Succeeded byHerbert Funk Goodrich
Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
In office
December 31, 1938[1] – April 1939[1]
Preceded byThomas B. McCabe[1]
Succeeded byAlfred H. Williams[2]
Member of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
In office
April 1938[3] – April 1939[1]
Preceded byHarry L. Cannon[3]
Succeeded byWarren F. Whittier[2]
Chair of the National Labor Relations Board
In office
November 15, 1934[4] – 1935
Preceded byLloyd K. Garrison[5]
Succeeded byJ. Warren Madden (new agency established through the NLRA)
Personal details
Francis Beverley Biddle

(1886-05-09)May 9, 1886
Paris, France
DiedOctober 4, 1968(1968-10-04) (aged 82)
Wellfleet, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseKatherine Garrison Chapin
EducationHarvard University (BA, LLB)
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Years of service1918
UnitField Artillery
Battles/warsWorld War I

Francis Beverley Biddle (May 9, 1886 – October 4, 1968) was an American lawyer and judge who was the United States Attorney General during World War II. He also served as the primary American judge during Nuremberg trials following World War II and a United States circuit judge of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Early life and education[edit]

Biddle was born in Paris, France, while his family was living abroad.[6] He was one of four sons of Frances Brown (née Robinson) and Algernon Sydney Biddle, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School of the Biddle family. He was also a great-great-grandson of Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) the seventh Governor of Virginia, the second United States Secretary of State, and the first United States Attorney General.[7] He graduated from Groton School, where he participated in boxing.[8] He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1909 from Harvard College and a Bachelor of Laws in 1911 from Harvard Law School.[6]


Biddle first worked as a private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. from 1911 to 1912.[6] He spent the next 27 years by practicing law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1912, he supported the presidential candidacy of former US President Theodore Roosevelt's renegade Bull Moose Party. He was a special assistant to the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1922 to 1926.[6]

During World War I he served as Private in the United States Army from October 23 to November 30, 1918.[8] After he enlisted, he was detailed to the Field Artillery Central Officer's training school at Camp Taylor, Kentucky but the war ended during his training and he was discharged.[9]

Roosevelt administration[edit]

In the 1930s, Biddle was appointed to a number of important governmental roles. In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him to become Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. On February 9, 1939, Roosevelt nominated Biddle to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, to a seat vacated by Joseph Buffington. The United States Senate confirmed Biddle on February 28, 1939, and he received his commission on March 4, 1939. He served only one year in the role before resigning on January 22, 1940, to become the United States Solicitor General.[6] This also turned out to be a short-lived position when Roosevelt nominated him to the position of Attorney General of the United States in 1941. During this time he also served as chief counsel to the Special Congressional Committee to Investigate the Tennessee Valley Authority from 1938 to 1939.

World War II[edit]

During World War II, Biddle used the Espionage Act of 1917 to attempt to shut down "vermin publications", which included Father Coughlin's publication entitled Social Justice.[10] Biddle prosecuted several prominent left-wing individuals and organizations under the Smith Act. In 1941, he authorized the prosecution of 29 Socialist Workers Party members in a move that was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union.[11] Under the act, he also tried unsuccessfully to have trade unionist Harry Bridges deported.[12]

In 1942, Biddle became involved in a case in which a military tribunal appointed by Roosevelt tried eight captured Nazi agents for espionage and for planning sabotage in the United States as part of the German Operation Pastorius. Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Royall challenged Roosevelt's decision to prosecute the Germans in military tribunals by citing Ex parte Milligan (1866), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not establish military tribunals to try civilians in areas that civilian courts were functioning, even during wartime. Biddle responded that the Germans were not entitled to have access to civilian courts because of their status as unlawful combatants. The US Supreme Court upheld that decision in Ex parte Quirin (1942) by ruling that the military commission that was set up to try the Germans was lawful. On August 3, 1942, all eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. Five days later, six of the eight were executed in the electric chair on the third floor of the District of Columbia jail. The other two were given prison terms since they had willingly turned their comrades over to the FBI. In 1948, both men were released from prison and returned to Germany.[13]

Japanese American Internment[edit]

Biddle was one of the few top officials, along with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes, who opposed the wartime internment of Japanese Americans from the start.[14][additional citation(s) needed] [15]

In 1943, after the internment had already taken place, he asked Roosevelt for the camps to be closed: "The present practice of keeping loyal American citizens in concentration camps for longer than is necessary is dangerous and repugnant to the principles of our government."[16] Roosevelt resisted, however, and the camps would not be closed for another year. In a postwar memoir, Biddle wrote that "American citizens of Japanese origin were not even handled like aliens of the other enemy nationalities—Germans and Italians—on a selective basis, but as untouchables, a group who could not be trusted and had to be shut up only because they were of Japanese descent."[17]

African American civil rights[edit]

Biddle strengthened his department's efforts on behalf of African-American civil rights by instructing United States attorneys to direct their prosecutions against forced labor in the South away from the usual practice of charging "peonage", which required them to find an element of debt, toward bringing charges of "slavery" and "involuntary servitude" against employers and local officials.[18] On February 10, 1942, Biddle ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to probe into the lynching of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, Missouri, which was the United States' first federal investigation of a civil rights case.[19]

Truman administration[edit]

Biddle (far right) with other judges at the Nuremberg trials (from left): Iona Nikitchenko of the Soviet Union and Norman Birkett and Geoffrey Lawrence of the United Kingdom

At U.S. President Harry S. Truman's request, Biddle resigned after Roosevelt's death. Shortly afterward, Truman appointed Biddle as a judge at the Nuremberg trials. Tom C. Clark, Biddle's successor, told the story that Biddle was the first government official whose resignation Truman sought and that it was quite a difficult task. Biddle was amused by Truman's stammering, but after it was over, he threw his arm around the President and said, "See, Harry, now that wasn't so hard."[citation needed]

In 1947, he was nominated by Truman as the US representative on the United Nations Economic and Social Council. However, after the Republican Party refused to act on the nomination, Biddle asked Truman to withdraw his name.[citation needed]

In 1950, he was named as chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, a position that he held for three years.[6] One decade later, he wrote two volumes of memoirs: A Casual Past in 1961 and In Brief Authority in 1962. His final position came as chairman of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Commission from which he resigned in 1965.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

On April 27, 1918, Biddle was married to the poet Katherine Garrison Chapin. They had two sons:

  • Edmund Randolph Biddle (1920–2000),[20] who married Frances M. Disner[21][22]
  • Garrison Chapin Biddle (1923–1930)

Biddle died on October 4, 1968, of a heart attack at his summer home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, at the age of 82. Biddle was interred at the St. Thomas' Church Cemetery in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania.


Biddle's writing skills had long been in evidence prior to the release of his memoirs. In 1927, he wrote a novel about Philadelphia society, The Llanfear Pattern. In 1942, he wrote of his close association with Oliver Wendell Holmes 30 years earlier with a biography of the jurist, Mr. Justice Holmes, which was adapted into a 1946 Broadway play and a 1950 film entitled The Magnificent Yankee. Democratic Thinking and the War was published in 1944. His 1949 book, The World's Best Hope, looked at the role of the United States in the post-war era. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.[23]

In popular culture[edit]

Biddle was portrayed by Len Cariou in the 2000 miniseries Nuremberg. Biddle was also the subject of the 2004 play Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass, who had served as Biddle's personal secretary from 1967 to 1968.[24][25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia : 1938
  2. ^ a b Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia : 1939
  3. ^ a b Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia : 1937
  4. ^ Annual Report of the United States Civil Service Commission, Volumes 49-64 (1932)
  5. ^ Labor Information Bulletin, Volumes 1-3 (1934)
  6. ^ a b c d e f Francis Biddle at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  7. ^ Political Graveyard: Biddle, Francis Beverley (1886–1968)
  8. ^ a b Whitman, Alden (October 5, 1968). "Francis Biddle Is Dead at 82; Roosevelt's Attorney General; First Chairman of N.L.R.B. Was Nuremberg Judge -Backed Liberal Causes". The New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  9. ^ Harvard's Military Record in the World War (1921)
  10. ^ "The Press: Coughlin Quits". Time. May 18, 1942. Archived from the original on October 14, 2010. Retrieved March 13, 2011.
  11. ^ The New York Times: "18 are Sentenced in Sedition Trial", December 9, 1941, accessed June 20, 2012
  12. ^ Steele, Free Speech, 208-11; The New York Times: Lewis Wood, "Bridges Ordered Deported at Once", May 29, 1942, accessed June 22, 2012
  13. ^ "Erschießen oder erhängen?" [Shoot them or hang them?]. Der Spiegel (in German). Vol. 15/1998. April 6, 1998. Retrieved February 23, 2019. Am Ende begnadigte Roosevelt Dasch zu 30 Jahren, Burger zu lebenslanger Haft. Nachfolger Harry S. Truman ließ beide 1948 nach Deutschland abschieben. [In the end Roosevelt commuted Dasch's sentence to 30 years imprisonment and Burger's to life-long imprisonment. His successor Harry S. Truman had both of them deported to Germany.]
  14. ^ Neiwert, David (2005). Strawberry Days. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 124. ISBN 978-1403967923.
  15. ^ Beito, David T. (2023). The New Deal's War on the Bill of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR's Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance (First ed.). Oakland: Independent Institute. pp. 194–195. ISBN 978-1598133561.
  16. ^ Neiwert, David (2005). Strawberry Days. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 195. ISBN 978-1403967923.
  17. ^ Weglyn, Michi Nishiura (1976). Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow & Company. p. 68. ISBN 978-0688079963.
  18. ^ Blackmon, Doublas A. (2008). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books. pp. 377–379. ISBN 9780385722704.
  19. ^ Capeci, Dominic J. (1998). The Lynching of Cleo Wright. University Press of Kentucky. p. 49. ISBN 9780813120485.
  20. ^ O'Neill, James (January 2, 2001). "Edmund R. Biddle, 79, Professor, Poet". Philly.com. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  21. ^ "Miss Disner Fiancee of Edmund R. Biddle". The New York Times. January 26, 1951. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  22. ^ "Mrs. Edmund Biddle Has Son". The New York Times. July 10, 1952. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  23. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  24. ^ "Trying times at Rosebud Theatre". The Strathmore Times. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  25. ^ Jones, Kenneth (April 19, 2004). "Victory Gardens Keeps Trying: Joanna Glass With Fritz Weaver Extends Two Weeks". Playbill. Archived from the original on January 31, 2013. Retrieved August 17, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fisher, Adrian S. "Francis Biddle." Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 9 (1974): 423+ [1].
  • Helfman, Tara. "Francis Biddle and the Nuremberg Legacy: Waking the human conscience." The Journal Jurisprudence 15 (2012): 353+. online
  • Pahl, Thomas L. "The Dilemma of a Civil Libertarian: Francis Biddle and the Smith Act." Journal of the Minnesota Academy of Science 34.2 (1967): 161–164. pnline
  • Rowe, James. "Francis Biddle." Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review9 (1974): 422.
  • Winfield, Betty Houchin. "With Liberty and Justice for All: Attorneys General During the Stress of War." in Journalism and Terrorism (2002). online

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Solicitor General
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Attorney General
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman

Succeeded by