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Sam Ervin

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Title: Sam Ervin  
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Subject: United States Senate election in North Carolina, 1968, United States Senate Watergate Committee, United States Senate election in North Carolina, 1974, Watergate scandal, Distinguished Service Cross (United States)
Collection: 1896 Births, 1985 Deaths, American Military Personnel of World War I, American Presbyterians, Appointed United States Senators, Deaths from Emphysema, Democratic Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party United States Senators, Harvard Law School Alumni, Jesse Helms, Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives, Members of the United States House of Representatives from North Carolina, North Carolina Democrats, North Carolina Supreme Court Justices, People Associated with the Watergate Scandal, People from Burke County, North Carolina, Recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross (United States), Recipients of the Purple Heart Medal, Recipients of the Silver Star, United States Senators from North Carolina, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Alumni
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Sam Ervin

Sam Ervin
United States Senator
from North Carolina
In office
June 5, 1954 – December 31, 1974
Preceded by Clyde R. Hoey
Succeeded by Robert B. Morgan
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 10th district
In office
January 22, 1946 – January 3, 1947
Preceded by Joseph W. Ervin
Succeeded by Hamilton C. Jones
Personal details
Born Samuel James Ervin, Jr.
(1896-09-27)September 27, 1896
Morganton, North Carolina
Died April 23, 1985(1985-04-23) (aged 88)
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Margaret Bell Ervin
Alma mater University of North Carolina Harvard Law School
Religion Presbyterian

Samuel James "Sam" Ervin, Jr. (September 27, 1896 – April 23, 1985) was an country lawyer," and often told humorous stories in his Southern drawl.[1] During his Senate career, 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.[2] 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 and 1973 of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon.


  • Early life 1
  • U.S. Senate career 2
  • Later life 3
  • Legacy 4
  • Accolades 5
  • In popular culture 6
  • Quotations 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Ervin was born in US Army in combat in France during World War I with the First Division at Cantigny [3] and Soissons, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.[4] 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.[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. 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

Ervin was serving as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court 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.[4] 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.[5] (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".[6]

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.[7]

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 Sen. Everett Dirksen's Constitutional amendment[8] 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.

Sam Ervin (right), as chair of the Senate Watergate Committee

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.[9] 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".[10]

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.[11] 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[12]), 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 turned out to not be the case.

Later life

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. 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. [13] 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" was released as a single,[14] and subsequently appeared on the 1991 compilation album Golden Throats 2.

Sam Ervin died in 1985 at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from complications of emphysema. He was 88 years old.


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.[4] His grandson, Sam J. Ervin, IV, was elected in 2008 to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.[15] 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


In popular culture

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[17] 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...[18]

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.[19]


  1. ^ a b [1][2]Sam Ervin, during the Watergate hearings
  2. ^ Campbell (2007)
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^ Kyle Longley, Senator Albert Gore, Sr.: Tennessee Maverick (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), p. 123.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Dirksen's proposed amendment said that nothing in the Constitution prohibited the administrator of a publicly supported school or building from “providing for or permitting the voluntary participating by students or others in prayer.” It added that this language did not authorize the administrator to “prescribe the form or content” of any prayer.
  9. ^
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^
  13. ^ Karl E. Campbell, Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers (2007)
  14. ^
  15. ^ NC Utilities Commission: Commissioner Ervin
  16. ^
  17. ^ [4]
  18. ^
  19. ^

Further reading

  • 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, p431-56
  • 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), ISBN 978-0-253-14540-6 — Biography.
  • Ervin, Sam J. (1983). Humor of a Country Lawyer, University of North Carolina Press (notice), 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

External links

United States Senate
Preceded by
Clyde R. Hoey
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from North Carolina
Served alongside: Alton Asa Lennon, William Kerr Scott,
B. Everett Jordan, Jesse Helms
Succeeded by
Robert B. Morgan
Political offices
Preceded by
John L. McClellan
Chairman of Senate Government Operations Committee
Succeeded by
Abraham A. Ribicoff
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