Lawyer, judge, and U.S. senator, Sam J. Ervin, Jr. (1896-1984) became a popular figure during one of the most trying times for the United States, when he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—the Watergate Committee.
Sam Ervin was born September 27, 1896, in Morganton, North Carolina. His ancestors, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, fled from religious persecution to settle in the new land in 1732. Educated in public schools and blessed with an insatiable appetite for learning, Ervin earned his college degree from the University of North Carolina in 1917, enlisted in World War I, and was wounded in combat in France. At one point during the war Ervin resigned his commission as a lieutenant as that was the only way he could return to the front and combat. A much decorated hero for his actions, when he returned home he attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1922. From the mid-1920s until the mid-1950s he practiced law when he was not called to higher duties: as a representative to the North Carolina General Assemblies of 1923, 1925, and 1931; as a criminal court judge (Burke County) from 1935 to 1937; as a U.S. representative for one year (1946) to finish the term of office vacated by the death of his brother; and as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1948 to 1954.
Ervin was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor William B. Umstead when Senator Clyde R. Hoey from North Carolina died in the summer of 1954. He was elected to complete that term in November of 1954 and was reelected by more than 60 percent of the vote in 1956, 1962, and 1968. During his 20 years in the Senate, Ervin served on several committees of note: the select committee investigating (and ultimately censuring) Senator Joseph McCarthy for activities which disgraced the Senate during McCarthy's anti-Communist smear campaign (1954); the select committee investigating labor racketeering, involving illegal activities in labor or management (1957-1960); and the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Watergate Committee) in 1973 and 1974, which he chaired. He also served as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and succeeded in protecting the rights of persons in the military, of the mentally ill, of the criminally accused, and of American Indians. (However, he consistently opposed a liberal interpretation of the Constitution to facilitate legislation supporting civil rights during the 1960s.) In addition to the Judiciary Committee and the select committees, Ervin's regular assignments were on the Armed Services and Government Operations committees.
Ervin's role as chairman of the Watergate Committee allowed most of the country to observe through televised hearings several characteristics for which he is remembered: a person who held the Constitution in the highest regard and found trespassers to be among the lowest of criminals; a trial judge and attorney who knew how to press witnesses and generate relevant information; and, because of the nature of his appointment as chairman, an individual who was generally above partisan politics, even though he was usually classified as a conservative by his voting record.
Throughout his career, Ervin maintained that a strict interpretation of the Constitution was very important. He was intolerant of those who meddled with the Constitution, be they activist judges or individuals who violated the tenets of that document. While seldom outwardly critical of individuals, Ervin maintained that those individual freedoms protected by the Constitution—particularly those restrictions upon government—were the most sacred protections guaranteed by the Constitution and were necessary for the preservation of democratic government.
In retirement, Ervin practiced "a little law" in Morganton, North Carolina. He died April 23, 1984, of respiratory failure. He was survived by his wife, Margaret Bruce Bell, whom he married in 1924, and by two daughters and a son.
The only biography of Sam Ervin is Paul R. Clancy, Just a Country Lawyer (1974). Sam Ervin wrote of his experiences with the Watergate Committee in The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy (1980). The role of Senator Ervin during the Watergate era is documented in Samual Dash, Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin Committee (1976). Ervin's views on the Constitution and the Supreme Court are presented in Sam J. Ervin, Jr. and Ramsey Clark, Rule of the Supreme Court: Policymaker or Adjudicator? (1970). Thad Stem and Alan Butler have presented information about Ervin's anecdotes in Senator Sam Ervin's Best Stories (1973), and Senator Ervin published his own account of many anecdotes in Humor of a Country Lawyer (1983). He summed up his long career in a 1984 book—Preserving the Constitution: The Autobiography of Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr.
Dabney, Dick, A good man: the life of Sam J. Ervin, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. □