About Edward John Phelps
Edward John Phelps (July 11, 1822 - March 9, 1900) was a lawyer and diplomat from Vermont. Born in Middlebury, he graduated from Middlebury College in 1840, studied law at Yale University, and began practicing in 1843.
Phelps' father Samuel S. Phelps had been a U.S. Senator from Vermont. Edward Phelps, completing his undergraduate education at Middlebury College, became a schoolmaster for a year in Virginia. He studied law at Yale University and was admitted to the bar in 1843. He began practice at Middlebury but in 1845 moved to Burlington, Vermont.
Professional and academic life
From 1851 to 1853 he was second controller of the United States Treasury. He then practised law in New York City until 1857, when he returned to Burlington, Vermont. He became a Democrat after the Whig party had ceased to exist. He was debarred from a political career in his own state, where his party was in the minority, but he served in the state constitutional convention in 1870.
He was one of the founders of the American Bar Association and was its president in 1880-1881. From 1881 until his death he was Kent Professor of Law in Yale University.
In 1880 Phelps was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont. In the gubernatorial race he was excoriated as an unrepentant Democratic copperhead:
Had he maintained his resolution to accept no political nomination, the memory of his attitude from 1860 to 1865 might have quite passed away ; but the Democratic nomination and his speech of acceptance, in which, with surprising want of tact, he aired afresh his old hatred of the African and attacked the Southern Republicans, white and black, with a virulence which few Southern Democrats could equal … have brought it into strong prominence. Still stronger light has been thrown on it by the publication of a careful stenographic report of a speech made by Mr. Phelps in September, 1864, before a little club of Copperheads in Burlington. In this he called Mr. Lincoln a 'wooden-head' and a 'twentieth-rate back country attorney,' declared that the North was fighting simply to 'turn loose all the [racial epithet]' and 'whitewash the [racial epithet] in the blood of millions[.].
Failing to gain office, he was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889, and in 1893 served as senior counsel for the United States before the international tribunal at Paris to adjust the Bering Sea Controversy. His closing argument, requiring eleven days for its delivery, was an exhaustive review of the case.
Phelps lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Vermont in 1881-1883, and on constitutional law at Boston University in 1882-1883, and delivered numerous addresses, among them The United States Supreme Court and the Sovereignty of the People at the centennial celebration of the Federal Judiciary in 1890, and an oration at the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument, unveiled in 1891 at the centennial of Vermont's admission to the Union.
In politics Phelps was always conservative, opposing the anti-slavery movement before 1860, the free-silver movement in 1896, when he supported the Republican presidential ticket, and after 1898 becoming an ardent "anti-expansionist."
President Grover Cleveland intended to appoint him as U.S. Chief Justice in 1888, but Phelps was concerned that his tenure as ambassador to the Court of St. James's in Great Britain would cause the Democratic Party to lose the support of Irish-Americans, and he declined.
Phelps died in New Haven, Connecticut. Former Yale University president Timothy Dwight V eulogized Phelps.
"The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything." From a speech given at the Mansion House in London on January 24, 1899, quoting Bishop W. C. Magee of Peterborough in 1868.
"Better a hundred times an honest and capable administration of an erroneous policy than a corrupt and incapable administration of a good one." Spoken at a dinner of the New York Chamber of Commerce.