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Sam Ervin

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Sam Ervin
United States Senator
from North Carolina
In office
June 5, 1954 – December 31, 1974
Preceded byClyde R. Hoey
Succeeded byRobert Morgan
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 10th district
In office
January 22, 1946 – January 3, 1947
Preceded byJoseph Ervin
Succeeded byHamilton C. Jones
Member of the North Carolina House of Representatives
from the Burke County district
In office
Preceded byJohn Mull
Succeeded byFrancis Garrou
In office
Preceded byJoseph Cooper
Succeeded byJohn Giles
Personal details
Samuel James Ervin Jr.

(1896-09-27)September 27, 1896
Morganton, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedApril 23, 1985(1985-04-23) (aged 88)
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Margaret Bruce Bell
(m. 1924)
Children3, including Samuel
EducationUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (BA)
Harvard University (LLB)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Years of service1917–1919
Unit28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Battles/warsWorld War I

Samuel James Ervin Jr. (September 27, 1896 – April 23, 1985) was an American politician who served as a U.S. Senator from North Carolina from 1954 to 1974. A Southern Democrat, he liked to call himself a "country lawyer", and often told humorous stories in his Southern drawl.[1] During his Senate career, Ervin was at first a staunch defender of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, as the South's constitutional expert during the congressional debates on civil rights.[2][3] However, unexpectedly, he became a liberal hero for his support of civil liberties.[4] He is remembered for his work in the investigation committees that brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and especially for his leadership of the Senate committee's investigation of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.[5][6]

Early life and education[edit]

Ervin was born in Morganton, North Carolina, the son of Laura Theresa (Powe) and Samuel James Ervin. He served in the U.S. Army in combat in France during World War I with the First Division at Cantigny[7] and Soissons, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.[8] He graduated from the University of North Carolina, where he was a member of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, in 1917 and from Harvard Law School in 1922. Ervin was fond of joking that he was the only student ever to go through Harvard Law "backwards", because he took the third-year courses first, then the second-year courses, and finally the first-year courses.[9]

Already admitted to the bar in 1919, before completing law school (later calling himself "a simple country lawyer"), Ervin entered politics straight out of Harvard.[1] Even before he had received his degree, Democrats in Burke County, North Carolina had nominated him in absentia for the North Carolina House of Representatives, to which he was elected in 1922, 1924, and 1930.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16] In 1927, in his role as attorney for Burke County, NC, Ervin served as the legal advisor to the local sheriff during the hunt for Broadus Miller, a black man believed to have murdered a teenaged white girl. The county officials invoked the outlaw provision of the North Carolina constitution which permitted any citizen to kill a declared outlaw without formal charges being brought. Miller was shot down while being pursued and his body displayed in the local courthouse square. Ervin was also elected and served as a state judge in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

U.S. Senate career[edit]

In 1948,[17] Ervin was appointed to a seat as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated by the resignation of Michael Schenck, and was serving in that capacity when he was appointed in June 1954 by Governor William B. Umstead to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Clyde Hoey, who had died in office. He ran successfully for the seat in November 1954.

Ervin made a deep impact on American history through his work on two separate committees at the beginning and ending of his career that were critical in bringing down two powerful opponents: Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954 and President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. In 1954, then-Vice President Richard Nixon appointed Ervin to a committee formed to investigate whether McCarthy should be censured by the Senate.[8] The Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, which investigated Watergate, was popularly known as the "Ervin Committee".

In 1956, Senator Ervin helped organize resistance to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision calling for desegregation of schools by drafting The Southern Manifesto; this influential document encouraged defiance of desegregation and was signed by all but a few of the Southern members of Congress.[18] (In his autobiography, Preserving the Constitution, Ervin said he later changed his mind on the Brown decision, stating that the decision, to the extent it eliminated mandatory segregation, was correct, but that forced integration, required under later decisions, was improper.)

Defenders of Ervin argue that his opposition to most civil rights legislation was based on his commitment to the preservation of the Constitution in its pristine formulation, and a general belief that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution only applied to white men. He repeatedly stated that the Constitution encapsulated civil, human and equal rights for all those he considered worthy. There is little if any evidence that he engaged in the racial demagoguery of many of his Southern colleagues. Some historians consider Ervin's position to be one of "cognitive dissonance" because he opposed federal legislation to combat race-based discrimination, but did not do so in harsh terms. While he once maintained that Americans were entitled to "their prejudices as well as their allergies", Ervin's defenders claim he did not seem to be motivated by prejudice himself, but more by his suspicion of federal power. Ervin said he disliked what the Warren Court "has done to the Constitution".[19]

On March 30, 1965, Ervin announced that he would offer a substitute to the Johnson administration's voting rights bill. Ervin referred to the administration's bill as cockeyed and unconstitutional, and that his version would provide for federal registers being appointed in areas certified to having findings of racial discrimination as defined under the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ervin said he would seek approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee and that he would carry the fight to the Senate floor in case the committee rejected his legislation.[20]

Ervin was also a staunch opponent of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which abolished nationality quotas beginning in 1968. He felt that the principle of tying allowed numbers of immigrants from a given country to the number of people who had ancestral origins in that country and lived in the United States should be retained.[21]

Meanwhile, Ervin's strict construction of the Constitution also made him a liberal hero for his support of civil liberties, his opposition to "no knock" search laws, and the growing intrusions of data banks and lie-detector tests as invasions of privacy. In 1966, Senator Ervin played a major role in the defeat of Senator Everett Dirksen's Constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools. Ervin also favored the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment, which made illegally seized evidence inadmissible in criminal trials.

In November 1970, Ervin was one of three Senators (all from Southern states, the others being James Eastland and Strom Thurmond) to vote against an occupational safety bill that would establish federal supervision to oversee working conditions.[22] In Ervin's case, he was attempting to make it possible for North Carolina to continue its lax regulation of workplace safety, as evidenced by the Hamlet chicken processing plant fire.

When the Senate voted on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1971, Ervin proposed an amendment that would exempt women from the draft; Ervin's amendment to the ERA overwhelmingly failed.[23] However, he was a staunch opponent of the ERA, and after it passed the Senate Ervin used his influence to dissuade the North Carolina General Assembly from ratifying it, maintaining that it was the "height of folly to command legislative bodies to ignore sex in making laws".[24]

He became involved in Senate investigations before Watergate, when in January 1970 it was revealed by Christopher Pyle, an investigator for Ervin's Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, that the U.S. Army was performing domestic investigations on the civilian population.[25] Ervin's further work in the matter over the following years, together with the Church Committee inquiries, led to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (after Ervin had left office).

Senate Watergate Committee[edit]

Sam Ervin (right), as chair of the Senate Watergate Committee alongside Howard Baker (center) and Fred Thompson (left)

The Chairman is fond of pointing out from time to time that he is just a country lawyer. He omits to say that he graduated from Harvard Law School with honors.

Senate Watergate Committee vice-chairman Howard Baker (R-TN) on Ervin during the Watergate Hearings[26]

Ervin gained lasting fame through his stewardship of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, also known as the Senate Watergate Committee, from the 1972 presidential election. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield chose Ervin because it was unlikely Ervin was going to run for re-election in 1974 (and in fact did not),[27] had no aspirations beyond his office, had deep knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was considered to be an even-keeled, conservative, independent-minded Democrat. President Nixon thought at first that Ervin might potentially be supportive, but that turned out to not be the case.

During the hearings, after announcing that the committee was issuing a subpoena for the Nixon White House tapes following Alexander Butterfield revealing the existence of the taping system installed in the Oval Office, Ervin proclaimed that Watergate had surpassed the American Civil War as the worst tragedy in the country's history. He also famously sparred with Nixon chief domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman about whether constitutional law allowed a President to sanction such actions as the White House Plumbers' break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex and their break-in at the office of the psychiatrist to Daniel Ellsberg, the former assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs who had leaked the Pentagon Papers.[28]

Ervin: But the foreign intelligence activities was not – had nothing to do with the...the opinion of Ellsberg's psychiatrist about his intellectual or emotional or psychological state!
Ehrlichman: How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?
Ervin: Because I can understand the English language! It's my mother tongue!

Applause ensued, and Ervin had to bang his gavel to restore order. Following the 1972 elections, Ervin proposed five bills to limit the power of the presidency. Two restricted the President's ability to use funds for reasons other than their appropriated purpose, one allowed more congressional oversight of appointed officials, one banned the President from pocket vetoing legislation when Congress was not in session, and the final bill required the President to inform Congress of any executive agreements made with foreign governments.[29]


As a result of numerous ongoing disputes with the Senate Democratic leadership and the Democratic National Committee, Ervin resigned in December 1974, just before his term ended.

Later life[edit]

After retirement, Ervin practiced law, wrote several books, and appeared in various commercials for products. As a lawyer, he served as a co-counsel with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC on several high-profile cases, including a successful appeal in Joyner v. Duncan.[30] In 1973, Ervin was recorded on CBS Records for the LP record, Senator Sam at Home, which featured tracks of Ervin speaking his mind and telling anecdotes, separated by tracks of him singing popular songs. One of those songs, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was released as a single,[31] and subsequently appeared on the 1991 compilation album Golden Throats 2.

Ervin was initiated into the Freemasons,[32] where he was elevated to the 33rd and highest degree of Master Mason.[33][34]

Ervin died in 1985 at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from complications of emphysema. He was 88 years old. His funeral was attended by numerous dignitaries, including former president Richard Nixon and members of his administration.[citation needed]


Entrance to Ervin Library at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton
Ervin's Senate desk
A glimpse of Ervin's restored office

Ervin's son, Samuel J. Ervin, III, was appointed in 1980 to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter.[8] His grandson, Sam J. Ervin, IV, was elected in 2008 to the North Carolina Court of Appeals[35] and in 2014 to the North Carolina Supreme Court.[36] Another grandson, Robert C. Ervin, was elected in 2002 as a North Carolina Superior Court Judge for District 25A.

Ervin's office and personal library has been preserved as the "Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Library and Museum", which is housed in the Phifer Learning Resource Center at Western Piedmont Community College in his hometown of Morganton

Privacy activism[edit]

In a 1964 essay called "The Naked Society", Vance Packard criticized advertisers' unfettered use of private information to create marketing schemes. He compared a recent Great Society initiative by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, the National Data Bank, to the use of information by advertisers and argued for increased data privacy measures to ensure that information did not find its way into the wrong hands. The essay inspired Ervin to fight what he saw as Johnson's flagrant disregard for consumer privacy. He criticized Johnson's domestic agenda as invasive and saw the unfiltered database of consumers' information as a sign of presidential abuse of power. Ervin warned that "The computer never forgets".[37]



In an interview[40] on William F. Buckley's Firing Line program, Ervin suggested that people in public life need to have more "backbone", and Buckley playfully suggested Gordon Liddy as a model to which Ervin responded, "Well, Gordon Liddy has a little too much backbone. I'll have to admit that I have a sort of sneaking admiration for a fellow like Gordon Liddy that does have an excess of backbone. His backbone exceeds his intelligence, really."

Ervin was a staunch opponent of the polygraph calling the tests "20th century witchcraft":

Probably no instrument in modern time so lends itself to threats to constitutional guarantees of individual freedom as the polygraph or so-called lie detector. The threat of its use or the intimidation inherent in its use restricts free expression and communication of ideas, intrudes on an individual's subconscious thought, makes him fear to speak his thoughts freely, or compels him to speak against his will. To my mind, the entire purpose of these machines is to invade a man's mind and find what lurks in the innermost part of his mental consciousness for reasons which have nothing to do with his ability to perform a job. If the right of privacy means anything at all and if it is a right to be cherished in our society, it means that people should be entitled to have thoughts, hopes, desires, and dreams that are beyond the reach of a bureaucrat, an employer, or an electronic technician. This is something which enthusiasts for these machines do not seem to understand. They do not understand and they do not appreciate how important privacy is to each American, and as long as that lesson is not understood, we all will find our right to privacy constricted if not abrogated entirely. I propose this legislation to ban the use of the polygraph for employment purposes in the hopes that Congress will pause for a moment, step back, and take a long look at the issues involved in the unrestrained use of the polygraph. Legislation is necessary to bring some order and control to the practice ...[41]

He also famously said of religion and government:

Political freedom cannot exist in any land where religion controls the state, and religious freedom cannot exist in any land where the state controls religion.[42]

On civil liberties and equal rights:

"Equal civil liberties for all and special civil rights for some are incompatible in concept and operation." Preserving the Constitution, p. 163

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b [1][2]Sam Ervin, during the Watergate hearings
  2. ^ Campbell (2007)
  3. ^ Sawyer, Logan (2021). "Originalism from the Soft Southern Strategy to the New Right: The Constitutional Politics of Sam Ervin Jr". Journal of Policy History. 33 (1): 32–59. doi:10.1017/S0898030620000238. ISSN 0898-0306. S2CID 231694120.
  4. ^ "Senator Sam Ervin - The Washington Post". The Washington Post.
  5. ^ "Sam Ervin: A Featured Biography". United States Senate.
  6. ^ "Former Sen. Sam Ervin, 88, Watergte Folk Hero, Dies". Los Angeles Times. 24 April 1985. Retrieved 18 August 2019.
  7. ^ Davenport, Matthew J. (2015). First Over There. New York: St. Martins. ISBN 978-1250056443.
  8. ^ a b c Dickenson, James R. (April 24, 1985). "Sen. Sam Ervin, Key Figure In Watergate Probe, Dies". Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved 2010-02-27.
  9. ^ "Ervin Assuming Leadership in Effort to Reassert the Authority of Congress", New York Times (February 4, 1973).
  10. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1923-1924".
  11. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1925".
  12. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1931".
  13. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1921".
  14. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1927".
  15. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1929".
  16. ^ "North Carolina State House of Representatives - 1933".
  17. ^ "Sam Ervin · Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in NC · UNC Libraries". exhibits.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2024-03-08. Ervin was appointed by Governor R. Gregg Cherry as an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1948, and served in that capacity for six years.
  18. ^ Kyle Longley, Senator Albert Gore, Sr.: Tennessee Maverick (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), p. 123.
  19. ^ Laura Kalman (1990). Abe Fortas. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04669-4. Retrieved 2008-10-20.
  20. ^ "Sen. Ervin Plans To Offer Proposal On Voting Rights". Lawrence Journal. March 30, 1955.
  21. ^ McGowan, William (August 2008). "The 1965 Immigration Reforms and The New York Times: Context, Coverage, and Long-Term Consequences". Center for Immigration Studies.
  22. ^ Finney, John W. (November 18, 1970). "SENATE APPROVES COMPROMISE BILL ON SAFETY IN JOBS". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 246. ISBN 0-465-04195-7.
  24. ^ Ervin Jr., Sam J. "The Question Of Ratification Of The Equal Rights Amendment CON." Congressional Digest 56.6/7 (1977): 171. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Retrieved: 2010-08-3.
  25. ^ United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights (1 January 1974). Military surveillance. Hearings .., Ninety-third Congress, second session, on S. 2318., April 9 and 10, 1974. Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. Retrieved 24 March 2017 – via Internet Archive.
  26. ^ "Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings, Part 1". WETA. 1983. Retrieved 16 August 2021.
  27. ^ "U.S. Senate". Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  28. ^ "Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings, Part 2". WETA. 1983. Retrieved 16 August 2021.
  29. ^ Editorials on File. Vol. 4. New York: Facts on File. 1973. p. 25. ISSN 0013-0966.
  30. ^ Karl E. Campbell, Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers (2007)
  31. ^ "Senator Sam J Ervin, Jr. - Bridge Over Troubled Water". Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  32. ^ "American politicians freemasons". Grove Lodge No 824 F.A. & A.M., Illinois. Archived from the original on August 28, 2018. Retrieved Oct 14, 2018.
  33. ^ "Celebrating more than 100 years of the Freemasonry: famous Freemasons in the history". Mathawan Lodge No 192 F.A. & A.M., New Jersey. Archived from the original on May 10, 2008.
  34. ^ "Famous Master Masons". mastermason.com. Archived from the original on September 30, 2018. Retrieved Sep 30, 2018.
  35. ^ "NC Utilities Commission: Commissioner Ervin". Archived from the original on 2008-04-14. Retrieved 2008-04-10.
  36. ^ "Biography - Ervin". Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  37. ^ O'Mara, Margaret (2018-12-05). "The End of Privacy Began in the 1960s". The New York Times.
  38. ^ "Paul White Award". Radio Television Digital News Association. Archived from the original on 2013-02-25. Retrieved 2014-05-27.
  39. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  40. ^ The Experiences of Sam Ervin. Firing Line. Hoover Institution. April 17, 1978.
  41. ^ The use of polygraphs and similar devices by Federal agencies : hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, Ninety-third Congress, second session, June 4 and 5, 1974. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Government Operations. Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee. 1974. p. 86.
  42. ^ "Aphorisms & Quotes". Retrieved 11 March 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Campbell, Karl E. "Senator Sam Ervin and School Prayer: Faith, Politics, and the Constitution", Journal of Church and State, Summer 2003, Vol. 45 Issue 3, pp 443–455,
  • Campbell, Karl E. "Claghorn's Hammurabi: Senator Sam Ervin and Civil Rights", North Carolina Historical Review, Oct 2001, Vol. 78 Issue 4, p. 431-56
  • Campbell, Karl E. "Preserving the Constitution, Guarding the Status Quo: Senator Sam Ervin and Civil Liberties", North Carolina Historical Review, Oct 2001, Vol. 78 Issue 4, pp 457–82
  • Campbell, Karl E. Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers (U. of North Carolina Press, 2007) ISBN 978-0-8078-3156-4
  • Clancy, Paul R. (1974). Just a Country Lawyer: A Biography of Senator Sam Ervin (preview at Google Books), Indiana University Press (notice Archived 2010-06-16 at the Wayback Machine), ISBN 978-0-253-14540-6 — Biography.
  • Ervin, Sam J. (1983). Humor of a Country Lawyer, University of North Carolina Press (notice Archived 2010-06-10 at the Wayback Machine), ISBN 978-0-8078-1566-3 (reprinted 1994, ISBN 978-0-8078-4464-9) — Collection of stories and anecdotes.
  • McClanahan, Brion T. and Wilson, Clyde Norman (2012). Forgotten Conservatives in American History, Pelican Pub. Company, ISBN 9781455615797
  • Wise, Bill M. (1973). The Wisdom Of Sam Ervin, Random House ISBN 0345235290

Preserving the Constitution Ervin's Autobiography

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from North Carolina
(Class 3)

1954, 1956, 1962, 1968
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 3) from North Carolina
Served alongside: Alton Asa Lennon, William Kerr Scott, B. Everett Jordan, Jesse Helms
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee
Succeeded by
New office Chair of the Senate Watergate Committee
Position abolished