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A contradictory country lawyer: Sam Ervin Jr.

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North Carolinians of Note

Editor’s note: This North Carolinian of Note profile was produced by students in Dean Emeritus Richard Cole’s feature writing class in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The profiles were distributed by the North Carolina Press Foundation. For reprint information, contact sandynie@email.unc.edu.

By Katharine McAnarney
UNC-Chapel Hill

“I am just a country lawyer from way down in North Carolina, and I probably make inquiries with a little bit more vigor than some of these high-falutin’ city lawyers do,” Sam Ervin Jr. said during the Watergate hearings.
Ervin, a U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, proved much more than a simple, country lawyer during his lifetime. He helped censure U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and investigated President Richard Nixon during the years leading up to his resignation in 1974.
Ervin also proved to be a contradictory lawyer. He opposed civil rights but advocated for individual rights. He defended Jim Crow laws but secured Native Americans’ rights. He supported limiting women’s rights yet opposed efforts by the federal government to restrict individual freedoms.
Before the U.S. Senate
Ervin was born in Morganton on Sept. 27, 1896, and died from respiratory failure on April 23, 1985.
He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1917. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I with the First Division and received two Purple Hearts for his service.
Ervin liked to call himself a country lawyer and spoke with a drawl, but he graduated with honors in 1922 from the prestigious Harvard Law School.
When another senator commented on his law degree during the Watergate hearings, Ervin jokingly told him not to tell anyone: “Thank God, no one would ever suspect it.”
Ervin got into politics right out of Harvard when Democrats from Burke County nominated him for the N.C. House of Representatives. He was elected for three two-year terms in 1923, 1925 and 1931. He also served as a judge on the N.C. Supreme Court in 1937-43.
N.C. Governor William Umstead appointed Ervin to the U.S. Senate in 1954 when U.S. Sen. Clyde Hoey died in office.
Voters re-elected Ervin to the Senate three times, and he served until 1974, when he relinquished his seat, just before the end of his term.

Censuring McCarthy
History remembers Ervin for his work on various Senate committees. In 1954, he served on the Select Committee to Investigate Censure Charges against U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
McCarthy made unsubstantiated claims that the federal government employed Communists and Soviets. He led a smear campaign that defamed many government officials and included actors. He even accused the committee of employing Communist tactics in its reports.
“If Sen. McCarthy believed those things when he said them about the Senate Committee, then there is a pretty solid ground to say he ought to be expelled from the Senate for moral incapacity,” Ervin said in a 1954 article that ran in The New York Times.
“If he put those things in there honestly believing them to be true, then he has evidently suffered gigantic mental delusions, and it may be argued with much force that he should be expelled from the Senate for mental difficulty,” he added.
The committee eventually issued a formal statement of disapproval and censured McCarthy.

Nixon and Watergate
Chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, Ervin led another major investigation, which resulted in the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon.
The Watergate scandal occurred in June 1972 when members of Nixon’s campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office and apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Ervin assured Americans that he would uncover the truth.
“My colleagues on the committee are determined to uncover all the relevant facts surrounding these matters, and to spare no one, whatever his station in life may be,” Ervin said in the committee’s first public session in 1973. “The nation and history itself are watching us. We cannot fail our mission.”
Ervin, a strict interpreter of the Constitution, didn’t believe Nixon could claim executive privilege and deny requests for information about the Watergate break-in.
“We could wind this up pretty soon if everyone would tell what he knows, but if we continue to play hide and seek, then it could take a while,” Ervin said.
The committee eventually indicted more than 40 government officials and prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to begin the process of impeaching Nixon.
Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.
“I think the Watergate tragedy is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered,” Ervin said after the hearings. “I used to think the Civil War was our country’s greatest tragedy, but I do remember there were some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate.”

Paradoxical legacy
Rufus Edmisten, deputy chief counsel to the Watergate Committee and Ervin’s friend, said Ervin believed the Watergate scandal was a disaster in the sense of governing principles.
“No time in history, and since then, have so many people with careers in the government gone to jail,” said Edmisten, now a lawyer in Raleigh. “It was a huge Greek tragedy played out on television.”
Ervin’s political views were that the powers of the federal government should be restricted. By signing “The Southern Manifesto” in 1956, he challenged the constitutionality of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that struck down separate but equal schools.
He defended other Jim Crow laws that segregated the races in the South and dismissed every civil rights bill proposed in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited discrimination based on race, religion or national origin.
He opposed federal action to advance women’s rights in 1971. When the Senate voted on the Equal Rights Amendment, Ervin proposed an amendment that would exclude women from the draft and further limit their rights.
Yet while serving as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in the 1970s, he protected individual rights of military personnel, the criminally accused, Native-Americans and the mentally ill. He also opposed a constitutional amendment to make prayer in public schools mandatory.
Karl Campbell, author of the biography, “Senator Sam Ervin: Last of the Founding Fathers,” addressed the conflicts borne from Ervin’s support for maintaining the South’s social structure, his advocacy of civil liberties and his distrust of the federal government and explained Ervin’s success.
“Ervin, and his many defenders, argued that he was not a racist, but a true believer in limited constitutional government who fought against all infringements on individual freedom,” Campbell said. “He built a constitutional ideology that rationalized and defended the traditional Southern way of life that he valued so deeply.”
Ervin tried to explain his staunch beliefs by telling a story during hearings on Native Americans’ rights in 1961.
“A gentleman who was rather prominent in his community attained his 95th birthday anniversary,” he said. “On that day the newspaper reporters came around to interview him. And one of them asked how old he was.”
“He said, ‘This is my 95th birthday anniversary.’ And the reporter said, ‘Well, you have lived a long, long time and have seen many changes in your life.’ And he said, ‘Yes, and I was against every one of them.’”
“Ervin never thought his views were inconsistent. He was a product of his time,” Edmisten said. “You have to look at the context of history. It’s the nature of humankind that you’re part of an era. Ervin sincerely believed the bills he opposed were taking rights from one person and giving them to another.”
Whether leading investigations, advocating for civil liberties or opposing civil rights, Ervin remained persuasive as a self-described “country lawyer.”
“He was the embodiment of what you called a country lawyer in North Carolina,” Edmisten said. “He was courtly, courteous and would argue like crazy against you, and walk off, shake your hand and have lunch with you.”
“He really meant it when he said he was just a country lawyer, and he was proud of it.”

The original profile was written by a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, UNC-CH. Provided by Newspapers in Education, the N.C. Press Foundation, www.ncpress.com.