Ervin, Samuel James, Jr.
Ervin, Samuel James, Jr.
Samuel J. Ervin Jr. had a long career in law and politics including twenty years in the U.S. Senate. He is most famous, however, for presiding over the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, popularly known as the Watergate Committee.
"There is nothing in the Constitution that authorizes or makes it the official duty of a president to have anything to do with criminal activities."
—Samuel J. Ervin Jr.
Ervin was born September 27, 1896, in Morganton, North Carolina. He received an A.B. from the University of North Carolina in 1917 and served as an infantryman in France during World War I. When he returned from France, he went to Harvard Law School where he received an LL.B. in 1922.
After law school, Ervin returned to North Carolina where for the next thirty years he practiced law, ventured into politics, and served as a county and state judge. Ervin's political career began in 1923 when he was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly; he served two more terms in the legislature in 1925 and 1931. His most notable achievement in the legislature came in 1925 when he helped defeat a bill that would have prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in North Carolina public schools.
From 1935 until 1937, Ervin served as a judge in the Burke County Criminal Court and, from 1937 until 1943, in the Superior Court. He resigned the latter post to return to his law practice. In 1946–47 he served part of a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, completing the term of his brother who had died after being elected to office. Ervin chose not to run for reelection when the term was over and returned to North Carolina. In 1948 he became a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court, a position that he held until 1954.
In 1954 the governor of North Carolina appointed Ervin to complete the term of a U.S. senator who had died. Ervin continued to be elected to the Senate until his retirement in 1974.
As a senator, Ervin fought against measures that he believed would endanger individual liberty. This led him to oppose most Civil Rights legislation—which he believed would confer freedom on some at the expense of others—as well as to be instrumental in stopping a proposed constitutional amendment that would have permitted prayer in the public schools. For the same reason, he opposed a government proposal to maintain computerized files on persons who participated in political protests. Such records, said Ervin, raised the specter of a police state. On social issues, he usually voted with the more conservative members of the Senate. He opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Ervin was widely respected in the Senate for his knowledge of the Constitution, which he described as one of the greatest works in the English language and said should be taken like mountain whiskey—undiluted and untaxed. Nonetheless, he might not have become a national figure had it not been for his role in the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. As Ervin presided over the nationally televised hearings, he became familiar to millions of viewers.
Known among his fellow senators for his wit and erudition, Ervin liked to describe himself as "just an ol' country lawyer." He published several books including The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy (1980); Humor of a Country Lawyer (1983); and an autobiography titled Preserving the Constitution (1984). Ervin died April 23, 1985, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.