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About Samuel James "Sam" Ervin, Jr.
Samuel James "Sam" Ervin Jr. (September 27, 1896 – April 23, 1985) was a Democratic Senator from North Carolina from 1954 until 1974. A native of Morganton, Burke County, North Carolina, he liked to call himself a "country lawyer", and often told humorous stories in his Southern drawl. Between 1954 and 1974, Ervin was a legal defender of the Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, as the South's constitutional expert during the congressional debates on civil rights. Unexpectedly, he became a liberal hero for his support of civil liberties. He is remembered for his work in the investigation committees that brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and especially his investigation in 1972 of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon.
Ervin served in the US Army in combat in France during World War I, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. 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.
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. 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. Ervin was also elected and served as a state judge in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
U.S. Senate career
Ervin was serving as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court when he was appointed in June 1954 by the governor 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. 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. (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 that he repeatedly stated encapsulated civil, human and equal rights for all. 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, ugly terms. While he once maintained that Americans were entitled to "their prejudices as well as their allergies", he did not seem to be motivated by prejudice himself, but more by his suspicion of federal power. Ervin said he didn't like what the Warren Court "has done to the Constitution".
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 a Constitutional amendment to make prayer in public schools compulsory. Ervin also favored the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment, which made illegally-seized evidence inadmissible in criminal trials.
When the Senate voted on the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971, Ervin proposed an amendment that would exempt women from the draft; Ervin's amendment to the ERA overwhelmingly failed. 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."
He got his start in investigative matters, even 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. Ervin's further investigations on 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).
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), because he had no aspirations beyond his office, because of his knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was an even-keeled, conservative, independent-minded Democrat. President Nixon thought at first that Ervin might potentially be partial to him, but that was not the case.
Ervin resigned in December 1974, just before his term ended. After retirement, Ervin practiced law, wrote several books, and appeared in various commercials for products. In 1973, Ervin was recorded on CBS Records on 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" appeared on the Album Golden Throats 2.
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. Sam Ervin died in 1985 at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from complications of emphysema. He was 88 years old.
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, North Carolina.
After Ervin's retirement, no one held his former Senate seat for more than one term until 2010 when Richard Burr, first elected in 2004, won re-election. Until then, it was said there was a "curse" on the seat.
Sen. Ervin's son, Samuel J. Ervin III, was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. His grandson, Sam J. Ervin, IV, was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. Another grandson, Robert C. Ervin, was elected as a North Carolina Superior Court Judge for District 25A in 2002.
In popular culture
Ervin's description of himself as a "simple country lawyer" has become synonymous with self-deprecation by those who are actually savvy. The Andy Griffith character in Matlock often described himself as a simple lawyer before cleverly solving a case. Saturday Night Live featured the skit Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer in which a caveman from prehistoric times becomes a lawyer, yet remarked how strange and frightening the modern world made him feel as he convinced a jury to acquit his client.
In the cult classic "Heavy Metal" animated film, Ervin is parodied in the short where aliens have come to Earth, he is seen at the meeting of officials discussing what should be done, he is seen with glasses, bushy eyebrows and a distinct Southern accent.
In 2001, Steve Bouser, a North Carolina journalist who interviewed Ervin, wrote a one-man play titled Senator Sam. The play is set on Ervin's porch in Morganton during the evening of Richard Nixon's resignation. Sam recalls his life, both personal and political.
The play debuted in Morganton in 2001. In 2005, The Blowing Rock Stage Company in Blowing Rock, NC produced a new production starring Gary Lee Smith that later toured several states.
There is also a one-act version for school audiences.
In an interview 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."
Sam Ervin was as 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...