Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers

By Karl E. Campbell

Back to book details

Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers

448 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 36 illus., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1458-8
    Published: April 2014
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-8474-4
    Published: April 2014

Buy this Book

Request exam/desk copy

Author Q&A

Copyright(c) 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rightsreserved.

Karl E. Campbell, author of Senator Sam Ervin, Lastof the Founding Fathers, on the paradox of the "old countrylawyer" who helped bring down a president.

Q: Why did you write a biography of Senator Sam Ervin, and why now?

A:  I cannot think of anotherhistorical figure that is more relevant to the political crisis we facetoday. Just over thirty years ago Senator Ervin led the congressionalcounter-offensive to Richard Nixon's imperial presidency. He became anational hero when he chaired the Senate Watergate hearings whichexposed the Nixon administration's "white house horrors." Because ofErvin's old-fashioned country lawyer charm, his advanced age - he wasseventy six - and his fundamental faith in Constitutional government,reporters began calling him "the last of the founding fathers."

Today another presidential administration is claiming uncheckedexecutive power in a time of uncertainty and fear. I believe that thisbiography of Senator Ervin can contribute to our national debate overhow to balance national security with individual freedom.

Q: Do you believe that Ervin's primaryhistorical legacy was his role in Watergate and is that the main focusof the book?

A: Obviously Watergate representedthe highpoint of Ervin's career, but that scandal emerged from a longseries of constitutional battles between Ervin and the Nixonadministration over executive power, secrecy, domestic spying, civilrights, and civil liberties. The book actually focuses more on Ervin'sroad to Watergate, and the often overlooked historical context in whichthe scandal emerged, than on the details of the Watergate story itself.But there is much more to Sam Ervin than just Watergate. He served inthe Senate from 1954 to 1974 and participated in many of the mostimportant political events of the second half of the twentieth century.For instance, Ervin played a major role in bringing down Senator JosephMcCarthy in the 1950s and he fought very hard to protect the separationof church and state in the 1960s. His many crusades to defend civilliberties and personal privacy, long before the advent of Richard Nixon,are certainly important as well. But if it had not been for Watergatehis greatest historical legacy would have been his consistent battleagainst civil rights. Few politicians contributed more to the South'sdefense of Jim Crow than Sam Ervin. The book gives equal attention tohis record on both civil liberties and civil rights.

Q: It seems to be a contradiction thatErvin was both a defender of civil liberties and an opponent of civilrights. How do you explain this paradox?

A:  There is considerable debateabout this question. Sam Ervin liked to say that it was not the civilrights of some Americans but the civil liberties of all Americans onwhich he took his stand. Ervin and his many defenders argued that he wasnot a racist but a true believer in limited constitutional governmentwho fought against all infringements on individual freedom. Ervin'scritics dismissed this intellectual defense by pointing out that heopposed every single civil rights bill proposed during his two decadesin the Senate. They suggested that Ervin was a rational segregationistwho hid his racism under a cloak of constitutional respectability. Ibelieve that neither the orthodox defense of Ervin as a consistentconstitutional libertarian nor the critical attack on the senator as aninconsistent southern obstructionist can withstand a close review of thehistorical record.

Perhaps it was Ervin himself who hinted at a more revealing way tounderstand his political philosophy when he told a story about aninety-five year old man who was celebrating his birthday down home inNorth Carolina. When a reporter suggested that he had lived a long timeand must have seen many changes, the old man answered, "Yup, and I havebeen against every damn one of them." Sam Ervin, too, was againstchange. He built a constitutional ideology that rationalized anddefended the traditional southern way of life that he valued so deeply.

Q: Tell us a little about Ervin's childhoodin North Carolina.

A: The world in which Ervin wasborn in 1896 was drastically different from the world in which he servedas a United States senator between 1954 and 1974. Morganton, his hometown, was a small village located just below the Blue Ridge Mountains inwestern North Carolina. It was so small that Ervin not only knew thenames of all the people in town but also the names of all their dogs andcats. He grew up in a time when buggy whips, pickle barrels, ice wagons,washboards, and outhouses were common items of daily life. Sam was oneof ten children who lived comfortably in a big house on the outskirts oftown. Indoor plumbing and electricity did not arrive at his home untilhe was a teenager. Firsthand accounts of the Civil War andReconstruction filled the conversations on the front porch. His fatherwas a lawyer who practiced in the old courthouse downtown. The Ervinfamily experienced several tragedies but Sam remembered his childhood asa very happy time in which "you had time to live."

Q: Where did Ervin get his education and how did it influence him?

A:  Ervin went to the Universityof North Carolina at Chapel Hill and he loved everything about it. Helater told his sister that there were few things in his life that he didnot relate in some way back to his schooling at Chapel Hill. But it canbe argued that his education came as much from his traumatic experiencein World War I as it did from the classroom. After an early failure anddemotion Ervin won a silver star for heroism in battle. He returned homein 1919 recovering from both physical and emotional wounds. He soondecided to study the law at Harvard University, but his sweetheart, MissMargaret, was not sure if she would wait for him. So Ervin took the lastyear of courses first, then obtained Margaret's permission to take thesecond year courses, and finally he talked her into waiting one moreyear so that he could take his first year courses and finish his lawdegree before they got married. Thus, Sam Ervin went through Harvard LawSchool backwards. To this day some of Ervin's critics suggest his viewof the Constitution was as backwards as was his legal education.

Q: Ervin often claimed that he was "just acountry lawyer." Was that really true?

A: Yes, he really was a countrylawyer, just like his father, in the sense that they served all kinds ofclients, in all sorts of cases, all across western North Carolina. Oneof my favorite Ervin stories is about an old, mountain woman who cameinto Ervin's office unannounced to ask for some legal advice. Ervinpulled down some law books and spent about an hour talking with thewoman. When she stood up to leave Ervin asked her for five dollars."What for," she asked. "For my legal advice," Ervin answered. "Well,"the old woman snapped, "I ain't a-going to take it," and she walked outthe door without paying him. Years later, Senator Ervin used this samestory to illustrate why the Watergate Committee would not acceptPresident Nixon's legal rational of executive privilege to avoidsurrendering the Watergate tapes.

Q: Ervin did not go to the Senate until 1954when he was fifty eight years old. What did he accomplish before thattime?

A: Even as a young man Ervindistinguished himself as an outstanding lawyer and state leader. In histwenties he served in the state legislature where he helped defeat abill preventing the teaching of Darwin's theories in the public schools.In his thirties he served the interests of the conservative businessmenwho ran the state by managing several challenges to their authority,including commanding national guard troops called out to put down atextile strike, and working with the local sheriff to stop the lynchingof an already deceased African American accused of raping a white woman.In his forties he served as a prosecutor and judge in criminal and thestate superior courts. By the time he was fifty he was one of the mostrespected justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Q: In the book you quote a journalist assaying that Ervin was "the most North Carolinian of North Carolinians."What does that mean and how does it fit into your understanding of thesenator?

A: Sam Ervin deeply reflected theculture, and the contradictions, of his home state. Over fifty years agothe political scientist V.O. Key called North Carolina a "ProgressivePlutocracy." He believed that a small group of businessmen and theirlawyers held a tight grip on the state's government, but that they alsoacted in a generally beneficent manner making North Carolina the mostprogressive state in the South. Ervin was steeped in the values of thisinfluential group of Christian southern gentlemen. At the core of theirbelief system was what one scholar has described as a "progressivemystique" based on civility, tokenism, and especially paternalism. Ervinembodied his state's progressive mystique and he was a consummatepractitioner of the etiquette of civility. Thus, as North Carolina'srepresentative in the United States Senate, he opposed civil rights witha "soft southern strategy" and respectable constitutional argumentation.But he also took his paternalistic responsibility seriously, eventuallydefending the civil liberties of many Americans from the intrusive powerof the federal government.

Q: Can you explain why you describe SenatorErvin's approach to defeating civil rights bills as the soft southernstrategy"? Why you think it was so significant?

A: Ervin replaced the traditional,angry, racist rhetoric of earlier civil rights battles with a polite,legalistic approach that proved much more effective. He always found arespectable legal or constitutional reason to oppose a civil rights billinstead of attacking the goal of the legislation - to give AfricanAmericans equal rights. While most scholars have dismissed Ervin's softsouthern strategy as mere legal sophistry and focused on the more openlyracist approaches of such outspoken segregationists such as SenatorsByrd, Thurmond, and Eastland, many civil rights activists believedErvin's soft southern strategy to be a far greater threat to theirmovement. I agree. Indeed, I argue that Ervin became the de factoattorney general for the southern caucus in the Senate and that hislegalistic approach became the South's most successful defense of JimCrow. I also think that his soft southern strategy foreshadowed thecolor-blind logic that many of today's civil rights opponents use toundercut contemporary efforts to advance racial equality.

Q: So how did this conservative southernsegregationist become the Senate's most respected champion of civilliberties?

A: Ervin inherited a deep respectfor the rule of law from his father, and he grew up with a distrust ofthe federal government shared by many white southerners after the CivilWar and Reconstruction. In the early 1960s he became chairman of theSenate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and he surprised many ofhis critics by expanding its agenda to defend the constitutional rightsof several previously neglected groups such as the mentally ill,military personnel, and Native Americans. A few years later he pushedfor bail reform, privacy legislation, guaranteed legal services forindigent defendants, and the right of anti-war protestors to demonstratepeacefully against the government. By the time Nixon came to the WhiteHouse Ervin had evolved from a conservative civil libertarian into anactivist champion of every individual's right to privacy.

Q: What was Ervin's position on the SupremeCourt's ruling against mandatory school prayer?

A:  Ervin was outraged when heheard that the Supreme Court had ruled that school prayer wasunconstitutional. He liked to tell a story about an elementary schoolteacher who entered her classroom to find several students down on theirknees in a corner. When she demanded to know what they were doing, thestudents responded that they were shooting craps. "That's ok," therelieved teacher said, "I was afraid you were praying and that isagainst the rules."

But after studying the issue in more depth Ervin changed his mind anddecided that the separation of church and state prevented any governmentofficial, even a teacher, from requiring prayer. When Senator EverettDirksen proposed an amendment to overrule the Court's prohibitionagainst school prayer, Senator Ervin surprised many of his friends andconstituents by rising to speak against it. In one of his best speecheshe called on the Senate to protect the freedom of religion by allowingevery citizen to worship their own god in their own manner withoutgovernment interference. The Dirksen amendment was defeated. It is rareto find a politician who is willing to put the consistency of theirconstitutional ideology above political expediency. The Washington Postcalled Ervin "an authentic hero."

Q: What did Ervin think of Nixon when he ranfor president in 1968 and did his opinion change over the next fewyears?

A: Ervin had never liked, ortrusted, Richard Nixon, although the two men had not had many dealingswith each other before Nixon became president. As conservatives theyagreed on most of the major issues of the campaign. But Ervin and Nixonrepeatedly clashed over civil liberties and the separation of powersduring the president's first term. Ervin held hearings to challengeNixon's impoundment of funds, doctrine of executive privilege,restriction of newspersons' privileges, strengthening of the SubversiveActivities Control Board, and other executive actions based on thepresident's claim of "inherent Constitutional powers." Watergate was thelogical culmination of this progression.

Q: In a chapter titled "Rehearsal forWatergate" you discuss Ervin's hearings into the Army's domesticsurveillance program in 1971. How did these hearings foreshadowWatergate?

A: It is actually an amazingstory. For several years the U.S. military spied on the American peopleand kept secret computers filled with information about their lawfulactivity. The Army even kept notes on American politicians, which shouldscare anyone who understands our country's historic distrust of militaryinterference in a democratic society. When Ervin led an investigationinto this clearly unconstitutional domestic spying many of the samepeople on both sides of the hearings made the same arguments aboutpresidential power and individual freedom that they would make two yearslater during Watergate. Although the Nixon administration did notdirectly defend the military's domestic surveillance during the hearingsit lied to Congress about the program, withheld important documents byclaiming executive privilege, and argued that national security trumpedcivil liberties whenever a president thought that it should. Thesehearings not only served as a rehearsal for Watergate, they foreshadowedthe debates we are having today about how to conduct the so-called Waron Terror.

Q: How do explain Ervin's tremendouspopularity during Watergate?

A: Part of his appeal came fromhis appearance. Ervin was a nightmare on television, but his bobbingeyebrows, ample jowls, southern drawl, rambling quotations, and cornycracker barrel stories made him seem all the more real compared to theslick media-savvy bureaucrats from the Nixon administration. Anotherpart of his popularity came from his obvious love of the Constitutionand his almost naive faith in our system of checks and balances. Heseemed like a voice from the distant past reminding us of our nation'shistory and heritage. As one college student explained, "he says he'sjust 'an old country lawyer,' but when he talks about the Constitutionhe makes you want to stand up to pledge allegiance."

Q: Are there any historical lessons to bedrawn from Ervin's road to Watergate?

A: Historians are reluctant tosuggest that we can draw conclusive lessons from the past, but Ervin didremind us that freedom is a precious gift that must be defended not onlyfrom external attacks but from internal threats as well. Like thefounding fathers to who he was so often compared, Ervin argued thatunchecked executive power will inevitably lead to corruption. One canonly hope that this central tenet of the American constitutionaltradition will not be forgotten today.