Ervin, Samuel J., Jr., 1896-1985

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
From: American Decades(Vol. 8: 1970-1979. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 715 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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About this Person
Born: September 27, 1896 in Morganton, North Carolina, United States
Died: April 23, 1985 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Other Names: Ervin, Sam; Ervin, Sam J., Jr.; Ervin, Samuel James, Jr.; Ervin, Sam, Jr.; Ervin, Samuel J., Jr.; Ervin, Samuel J.
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ERVIN, SAMUEL J., JR., 1896-1985


A Watergate Celebrity

One of the most colorful figures to emerge from the Watergate affair, Sen. Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina) became nationally acclaimed for his deft management of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Presidential Campaign Practices (commonly referred to as the Watergate committee or the Ervin committee). His leadership, visible to millions daily during the televised Watergate proceedings, seemed to exemplify the best in American politics: fairness, honesty, a passion for truth, and a reverence for the Constitution. By the end of summer 1973, he had become an American folk hero, and "Uncle Sam" fan clubs, complete with T-shirts and buttons featuring Ervin, appeared around the country.

Reluctant Politician

The son of a Morganton, North Carolina, lawyer, Ervin grew up memorizing the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the Constitution; to his father, descendant of Scots-Presbyterian stock, such an education was essential in a democracy. Sam Ervin followed his father into law, graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1917. In the army during World War I, he was awarded the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Distinguished Service Cross. Following the war, Ervin attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1922. He married Margaret Bruce Bell in 1924 and, like his father, settled down to practice law in Morganton. Ervin served three terms in the North Carolina state assembly (once helping to defeat a bill to ban the teaching of evolution), but his aspirations were judicial, not political. He became Burke County judge in 1935 and a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1948. In 1946 he served a brief term as a representative to Congress, a spot he assumed following the death of his brother, who had been elected to the office. In 1954 Ervin again assumed political office following the death of a sitting official—in this case the U.S. senator Clyde R. Hoey. Ever reluctant to campaign, but enormously popular with his constituents, Ervin remained in the Senate, acquiring a reputation as a foe of what he believed to be a governmentally-imposed civil rights movement.

Partisan of Due Process

Ervin's sound but unspectacular record as a senator changed with the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968. As chairman of the Constitutional Rights Subcommittee, Ervin found himself as the Senate's chief opponent to several Nixonian programs designed to increase the police powers of the federal government. He opposed Nixon's attempt to reactivate the Subversive Activities Control Board and attacked Nixon's effort to impound funds earmarked by Congress for programs Nixon opposed. Nixon's 1970 anticrime bill, granting the police sweeping powers to investigate and prosecute suspects, earned Ervin's scorn. He denounced the bill as a "blueprint for a police state" and called it "a garbage pail of the most repressive, near-sighted, intolerant, unfair and vindictive legislation that the Senate has ever been presented."

Ervin versus the President's Men

Ervin's opposition to Nixon's expansion of police powers was based on his deeply felt antipathy toward coercive government and his belief in the inalienable rights of the individual. Like Nixon, Ervin was a hawk on Vietnam and did not look sympathetically on protesters in the streets. Nonetheless, to Ervin the capacity of government in a computer age to undermine personal freedom was great, and he increasingly felt compelled to take a visible stance against potential abuses of power, even if, as many in the Nixon administration argued, they were undertaken to restore order. To millions of the television viewers watching the Watergate hearings, Ervin's insistence that the means of governmental power must be commensurate with the end of democracy and that the Constitution must be obeyed in spirit and letter placed the ethics of the young, ambitious, and unprincipled Nixon administration officials who appeared before his committee in sharp and unfavorable relief. To many Americans Ervin became the guardian of Jeffersonian democracy, the embodiment of a national principle Ervin articulated in 1971: "No one man and no one executive department should have the absolute power to order government spying on how people use their right of free speech. This is what we mean by a government of laws and not of men." Ervin retired from the Senate in 1975; he died in 1985 at the age of 88.


Paul R. Clancy, Just a Country Lawyer; A Biography of Senator Sam Ervin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468302708