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Samuel J. Ervin, Jr.
U. S. Senator
Samuel J. Ervin, Jr. was born
at Morganton, in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, in 1896. The family
was originally from South Carolina. They had moved to Morganton in 1827.
At that time the family was in reduced circumstances after the Confederate
War, along with many other families, but they had a distinguished lineage
and a devotion to the Presbyterian Church.
After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which ended religious toleration in France, the Marquis de la Luce, a Protestant nobleman and elder in the church, led a colony to Virginia in 1700. One of the three ministers of the colony was the Rev. Claude Philippe de Richebourge, an Ervin ancestor who removed to South Carolina in 1710.
During the American Revolution it was the custom of British Major James Wemyss who burned the church at Indiantown, South Carolina, to destroy the churches as "sedition shops." He destroyed the house of a leading Presbyterian patriot, Capt. James Conyers, of Camden District, Fifth Regiment, South Carolina Continental Line, an Ervin ancestor.
One of the more historic Presbyterian churches in South Carolina is that of Camden District whose Bethesda Church was designed by Robert Mills and built in the 1820's. Its cornerstone was laid March 9, 1825, by the Marquis de Lafayette on a visit. There are appealing and crossing sets of stairs behind this church, and in front of the building is a monument designed by Mills to "Baron" Johann DeKalb who came to America in 1777 with Marquis de Lafayette.
The "Baron" DeKalb was son of a Bavarian peasant farmer. He ran away at sixteen and became a waiter in an Alsatian inn. There this seeming hero from a Stendahl novel studied the ways of officers and nobles as he carried the dishes. He saved his money, got hold of a forged patent of nobility, and was thus enabled to begin life as an officer. He came to America as the "Baron" DeKalb because he wanted to be a General, having not achieved that rank in France where army promotion was corrupt. He achieved his dream of command. He was killed in 1780 at the battle of Camden as second in command of the army in the South. The pretense to aristocracy rebounded. His son was beheaded as an aristocrat in the French Revolution claiming truly that the nobility that condemned him was faked, but no one paid attention.
On August 19, 1976, historic Bethesda Presbyterian Church was one of the sponsors of a memorial service for General DeKalb on the lawn of the church at the monument.
The Ervins were lowland Scots who resided for a time in Ireland until the first American ancestor, James Ervin, migrated in 1732 and settled in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. There Colonel John Ervin fought in the American Revolution under General Marion, the Southern "swamp fox." This Colonel, John Ervin, was a Presbyterian elder.
John Ervin married Jane Witherspoon of the South Carolina family. Jane Ervin was a granddaughter to John and Janet Witherspoon who sailed from Belfast, Ireland in 1734 for America. Janet was an aunt of John Witherspoon, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. She and her husband were first cousins. John Witherspoon Ervin was Senator Ervin's grandfather. It was he who moved to Morgantown in 1874.
Senator Ervin is also a Mayflower descendant, so that his family is a composite of the three strains of Calvinism that have traditionally made the Presbyterian Church in the South, Covenanter, Huguenot and Puritan.
In Morgantown Senator Ervin's father was a lawyer, Chairman of the School Board and an elder in the First Church which was founded as early as 1790. His brother, the Rev. E.E. Ervin, was a minister who served in various churches in Kentucky and South Carolina.
Mr. Ervin, Sr. was a man of some means in the community. He dressed in a Prince Albert coat, had a beard, and wore a homberg hat. His wife was a lady of very high and strongly moral views. The family lived in a large white solidly built house. The couple had ten children who were taught to put mind over matter, work hard, tell the truth, and put a good name over money. The family lived simply, but had plenty. They represented a class of Americans in 1900 whose lives were best reflected in their houses of basic, yet not uninviting design.
Laura Powe Ervin emphasized the Bible in her house and stressed teaching Sam the Bible. In learning some of it he was aided by old fashioned Bible memory cards. Some of these old memory cards remain as souvenirs, along with other momentos of the church's history in the historical room of First Church in Morgantown.
Sam's father taught him a respect for the Constitution that has seldom been equaled. Of his lawyer father, Senator Ervin said, "He . . . instilled in me the idea that, after all, the greatest threat to our liberties came from government, not from others."
Sam's wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He went to a preparatory school in Annapolis. He failed the math exam. Ashamed he returned home to finish high school and to take a job in a tannery where he sweated for ten hours daily and earned a dollar a day. He found there was much to be said for a college education. In 1913 he entered the University of North Carolina.
College experiences proved invaluable. He learned, for instance, not to vote against himself. He lost the editorship of the "Tar Geek" by one vote and the vote happened to be his own. He saw if you were going to get anywhere, you had to believe in yourself. He had a class under one professor, Bacot, who when some boys on a lark put a cow in his class, commented only that he was happy the general level of intelligence had been raised.
The man who became President of the University of North Carolina in 1914 was Edward Kidder Graham. He made a lasting impression among many of his students including Sam Ervin. In the essay on Edward Kidder Graham in Odum's Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation, Robert Conner wrote of Graham: "His own task was to use this instrument (UNC) as an aid to the South in passing from a culture of leisure and caste to a culture of democracy and work."
Sam became Private Ervin, Company I, 28th Infantry, 1st Division, American Expeditionary Forces in 1917. In France he won several medals. The citation for the Distinguished Service Cross read: Pvt. Erwin called ...volunteers. . .and led them in the face of direct fire in a charge upon the machine gun nest until he fell . . .wounded in front of the gun pit, but two members of the party reached the machine gun, killed the crew and seized the gun."
As Lieut. Ervin he returned home where he studied law and passed the bar exam in North Carolina, but this did not satisfy him. He went on to study law at Harvard University where he received his LL.B. in 1922. In 1924 he married Margaret Bell, a Converse girl from that South Carolina College. They celebrated their fiftieth anniversary June 16, 1974, at a party at eh L'Enfant Plaza Hotel while Sam was in Washington.
Margaret Bruce Bell came from a Presbyterian background. She was a first cousin, several generations removed, of Andrew Jackson. Sam has said of her, "Love me? She must, she has put up with me for so long. I would think there are rough corners in my personality that require a good deal of forbearance from a wife." Margaret, an extremely pretty young lady, and Sam spent their honeymoon in Yellowstone Park.
Sam practiced law in Morgantown, as his father before him, and the couple had a pleasant well-to-do provincial Christian middle class existence as their parents before them. Sam liked to read a lot. He taught the Men's Bible Class and was elected a church deacon in 1928, then an elder in 1935. He was active in the Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club. Margaret was a member of the D.A.R.. Sam practiced law in Morgantown for thirty years.
The couple had three children: Laura, Leslie, and Sam III, now a North Carolina Superior Court Judge, as his father was before him. Sam III went to historic Davidson College, a Presbyterian school founded in 1837 by Robert Hall Morrison, clergyman, planter, and father-in-law of Stonewall Jackson. When Senator Sam's grandson, Jimmy (James Samuel IV), was born and baptized in 1955, he was the eleventh generation Ervin to be Presbyterian. Jimmy, as his father before him, went to Davidson.
When Sam came back to practice law in Morgantown after Harvard, his political career began almost immediately. In the summer of 1922 he ran for the legislature and won. This was excellent background for his later career. He early showed a talent for getting along with others of different views without loss of integrity or self respect. Often
he had opposing views. An interesting piece of his legislative activity was the defeat of a bill that forbade the teaching of evolution in the North Carolina schools. Sam remarked: "This bill serves no good purpose except to absolve monkeys of . . . responsibility for the human race." Academic freedom was not interfered with.
Sam inched his way up through the ranks. After the legislature he was a county judge from 1935-37. In 1945 his brother, Joseph, a U.S. Representative died, and he took his place for a year in Washington. Then he came home to become a judge of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In these many years of judicial and legislative practice an awareness of human nature, its instincts, weaknesses and strengths was formed on the bench and on committees. When he went to Washington in 1954 as a Senator he was a mature and seasoned thinker.
In 1954 Senator Clyde Hoey of North Carolina had a heart attack and died immediately. Governor Umstead named Ervin to the unexpired term.
In Washington he and Margaret took an apartment at the Methodist House and lived simply. He did not try to be other than he was, which was an old fashioned gentleman from a Southern state. He was therefore thought by many to be lacking.
Senator Sam would be considered lacking in Washington's society of the later fifties and especially sixties, because the Senator was genuinely American and even homespun in a society that did not value those things. The classic example of the time was the way Lyndon Johnson was looked upon by the elite intellectuals of the era, often not on the basis of fair judgment, but because Johnson was rural and a Texan.
Eric Goldman, a Princeton University professor, in The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson discussed the outlook common at the time among many artists, intellectuals, and academics who often set a tone for the rest of semi-educated Metroamerica to follow.
It was a time of rejection of America. It was a time of admiration of things English. Goldman wrote of these Anglophile artists and intellectuals who thought of themselves as "special people" who were "custodians of values." They wished to "reconstruct" America but not to be "contaminated" by it. Goldman said: "In this kind of atmosphere it was noticeable how much British publications were the standard . . . one quoted the London Times Literary Supplement and one kept Encounter on the coffee table--or did until it was revealed the CIA had been subsidizing it. The mood was Tory radicalism, every man his own Disraeli."
Goldman also added: "In 1965 the American intellectual and artistic groups . . .in terms of positions held in government and business and attention given in the press, (were) more influential than at any time in the history of the United States." Significantly, when McGovern, the hope of these people was defeated for President, he considered moving to England.
It was contemptible that intellectuals and elite artists who considered themselves above the Babitts and the middle class in values so judged men on background. Babitt lacked a good education, while these were often well schooled and artistic, and their attitude was more than scurrilous. Yet Goldman quotes one as saying, "I look at that Texas cowhand and listen to him . . , and I say,...go fight your own war." This learned gentleman's views on foreign policy were based on trivial grammar and snobbish background.
It was argued at this time that intellectuals were held in contempt by more average Americans, and that in turn intellectuals scorned them. If so, it was easy to see why there was no meeting ground.
In that snobbish atmosphere Sam did not fit. The Senator was an unabashed patriot, a believer in America, a gargoyle protecting America Gothic, a man who gave speeches to the coldly regarded integrity of the land, the Kiwanis Club, Duke University Dad's Day, Morganton Man of the Year Banquet, the State Bar Convention, the Barbers' Association of North Carolina, and the Masonic picnic.
In those speeches Senator Sam meant every word he said. It was unfortunate many intellectuals had removed themselves from the leadership and company of the middle class and poorer and were left out of the national celebrations of the people. Senator Sam, certainly as well read as many intellectuals and a graduate of Harvard Law, was not a separatist. He went into the lives of the American people.
Senator Ervin was sworn in as a senator in the year of the Supreme Court decision on desegregation in the public schools. Ervin had always been interested in the welfare of black people and had in personal cases often displayed this. He was, however, a Constitutionalist conscience first and foremost who opposed federal coercion in desegregation. He remarked of the coercive laws: "We will not fool history as we fool ourselves when we steal freedom from one man to confer it on another." He objected to buying equality at the expense of general liberty.
If Senator Ervin were right or incorrect, he represented a perfectly respectable and even English tradition in so expressing himself. Benjamin Disraeli said: "I prefer the liberties we now enjoy to the liberalism they profess," and it was odd that admirers of all things English overlooked this. He was in a great line of American Constitutional statesmen who had expressed similar views. The verdict, as Senator Ervin himself pointed out, would be reserved for history to judge after the passions of the hour had resided.
The fact Senator Ervin was a judge making decisions on the Constitution on issues rather than on emotionalism was seen in his behavior towards Senator Dirksen's amendment to allow prayer in the public schools.
Senator Dirksen had had chorioretinitis, a degeneration of the retina believed to be caused by cancer, in which his vision was despaired of, but which had improved after his and his wife's sustained prayer. Senator Dirksen and his wife believed the Senator's eyesight was healed by God to keep him in office, because God needed him to work in the service of the government.
Senator Ervin was a devout man who favored the idea of prayer in the schools at first. He was a Presbyterian, marrow and bone, and one of the most devout on capital hill since Wilson. But after research Ervin decided that the founders of the country had meant complete separation of the state and the churches. He therefore voted negative, made a dramatic speech against, and was held responsible for the defeat of the amendment. Again, history would have to judge.
In the decision on means of desegregation he made liberal enemies. In the prayer decision he made enemies among many religiously conservative people whose views he valued. At the gut level he was not a politician, and this very few in a cynical city could understand or appreciate.
The senator was a man leading an interior life, a religious man, a moralist, a maker of ethical decisions on the Constitution. Certainly he was not perfect, but he made no claims to being so. His best interpretation was in poetry: "But his delight is in the
law . . . and in his law doth he meditate day and night." (Psalm 1:2)
He was also a Southern gentleman who was a defender of gentlemanly privacy, good form, and taste. He found that unspeakable and vulgar tests, containing information best reserved for psychiatrists and best confessed only to clergymen, were the common case in government, in schools, and many corporations.
These questions, besides dealing with sexuality and personal hygiene, were fraught with religious overtones. Two true-false statements answered by all entering freshmen at the University of North Carolina were:
I believe in the Second Coming of Christ.
Everything is turning out just like the prophets . . . said they would.
The theory was that if you believed this it was a sign you qualified as a neurotic or a coming lunatic. The implication was every Presbyterian, Anglican, or Roman Catholic who believed the Apostles' Creed (He shall come to judge the quick and the dead) or the Nicene Creed (He shall come again with glory) which they recited was in a bad way. Be that as it may, it was not a fair test.
Nor was meddling limited to embarrassing questions, religious beliefs, and secret files. There was an invisible lie detector seat that the government was interested in which gave a lie detector test without the person seated in it knowing it. This fantasy from the mind of Frankenstein was a product of Philco and on the market in 1966.
Senator Ervin warned at the time of a movement towards a "mass surveillance system unprecedented in American history." This had been made possible by advances in technology. At that time past age seventy, he did a depth study of computers and computer analysis. He said there was nothing to fear from computers, only fear of the morals of those who had access to them. He quoted Jefferson to the effect that more than ever technology meant eternal vigilance was the price of liberty.
The fact Senator Ervin introduced and got passed the Privacy Act of 1974 to ensure some of the excesses of Big Brotherism stopped did not mean the battle was over.
In the late 50's and 60's Senator Sam began to experience the pressure of the clergymen who considered themselves socially conscientious. They presented him with petitions and told him what God wanted him to vote on and how. Senator Ervin was accustomed to using his own judgment. He did not think all this amusing.
In fact he took it all quite seriously. He said in the July, 1960, Presbyterian Survey, that religious bodies could "instruct their members as to how they should render God the things that are God's, but they do not possess any special competence to instruct ... members as to how they should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."
Senator Ervin seemed to feel that whatever good intentions clergymen had, they were generally not politicians, sophisticated thinkers on economic issues and the Constitution, mature sociologists, et al. Many clergymen and church people had seen the plight of the poor and good people that they were, were rightly shocked but hysterically reaching for wrong solutions.
What was worse was the tone they were giving the church. In the simple age of Booster Clubs and rah-rah progress the church had been turned into a Booster club with a pep talk sermon, then the age of suburbs turned the church into the country club at prayer, and now it was becoming a highly schooled but na´ve liberal intellectual gnosticism.
All these points were to be considered, but others pointed out that the churches had a history of involvement with social issues. W.B. Hesseltine in The South in American History noted the Presbyterian Church as one of the churches in the colonial and revolutionary period that had been "agencies of social reform." Along with others "Presbyterians of the frontier and back country had waged incessant war upon the Established church." It had also been one of the churches in the early national period that "had fostered democracy, denounced aristocratic controls, and excoriated slavery.
The irritation in the matter probably lay in the patronizing superiority of the liberal clergy. If their churches now stressed social issues instead of creeds, which sometimes they did, their attitude was often as condescending towards those who did not go along on their social issues, as in the old days the conservative clergy had been of those who refused to subscribe to their creeds.
Whatever his relationship with the liberal clergy, and these were never all the clergy, his relationship with the people who voted for him in North Carolina was a mutual admiration society. He was always reelected without much trouble. The political observer George Autry said, "He has no power base, you know, no machine in North Carolina. They just reelect him."
Sam and Margaret kept a very small accommodation in Washington. In the evening they usually ate in a cafeteria on the first floor of the Methodist House. They attended the Southern Presbyterian Church of the Pilgrims on Sundays. At times he and Margaret went to tour historic battlefields of the Confederate War with their friends, the Henry Gattons. One of his Senate friends was John Stennis of Mississippi. Senator Stennis was a pillar in the small DeKalb, Mississippi, Presbyterian Church. It had an ante-bellum white columned chapel where Jefferson Davis worshipped on visits to the area before the church was destroyed in 1952.
In 1956 Sam owned a '50 Plymouth. Later he bought a Chrysler which he kept in the Senate garage. He took it out one day, stepped on the gas pedal, and it jammed. He went flying into the marble wall of the Supreme Court and bashed up the car. He was taken to a hospital where his statement to the reporters was, "I have always been accused of trying to run down the Supreme Court." He was equally clever at other times. He penetratingly remarked that Lyndon Johnson's difficulty was he never read a book that wasn't about himself. He commented the candidates for election in 1972 offered a choice between stupidity and duplicity.
As Watergate approached Senator Sam was increasingly remarking that the President's snowballing power was more than a good man would want and a bad man ought to have.
In 1972 the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) wiretapped the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington. President Nixon was made aware of this burglary and concealed it in order to be elected president in 1972. He lied about knowledge of the burglary. In 1973 Congress appointed Senator Ervin head of a seven man committee to look into the Watergate situation.
The reason Senator Ervin was elected to head it was made clear in the words of Mike Mansfield, Senate Majority Leader, "Sam is the only man we could have selected on either side who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole." The committee hearings were televised to the country at large.
The acceptance as head of this very controversial committee put Sam in very real danger of attack. The assassination threats came. Some were made as he and Margaret had their fiftieth anniversary party. Sam steeled himself and went about his business as he was accustomed.
Senator Sam on television was something to see. He asked telling questions. He quoted the Bible and Shakespeare. He roared with indignation. He smiled sweetly. Since he looked like a homespun Henry VIII, he was something to see.
It slowly became evident Senator Ervin was not presiding over a publicity scheme. It became evident piece by piece that Senator Ervin was presiding over the unveiling of a high tragedy Shakespearian in its dimensions. In the White House was a MacBeth, a dissembler, who had muffled conscience for power. He walked the White House half crazed; it was to be revealed later, debating with the invisible great in their portraits.
This was the stuff high drama is made of. In so Shakespearian a setting the role of Senator Ervin, soliloquizing, Bible quoting, profoundly indignant, suited him admirably. Nor was he a man of words alone. As it became known there were tapes of Nixon's conversations Senator Ervin demanded them from President Nixon.
When an aide finally got Nixon to talk to Senator Ervin on the telephone, the Senator said he wanted to have the tapes for the committee. Nixon said he was sick. The Senator said he was sorry but he still wanted the tapes. Nixon said, "You guys are out to get me." Senator Ervin, as if talking to a child, said they were out to get the truth.
Nixon demanded loyalty. Ervin was in search of truth. What was more tragic was that it was probably difficult for the President of the United States to understand the workings of a moral mind such as Ervin's.
The tapes showed the people of America had never voted for Nixon. They had never known him. They had been the dupes of a public relations show, fooled, manipulated by a slickly engineered image. They had been used. Their decency, their sentimentality, their desire to look trustingly at leaders had been laughed at and used. There was at this time a mood of overwhelming disgust and disillusionment.
Senator Sam gave the people back a sense of genuine American decency. He represented in many ways some of the best in the provincial American. He was genuine, God-fearing, and a fighter. He was Lincolnesque and picturesque. So they set up fan clubs for him, and people talked about him, and youngsters sported "Uncle Sam" tee shirts, and the adults "Uncle Sam" buttons. Uncle Sam had become as original an American image as "Old Hickory" and "Honest Abe."
He was their hero and they crowned him. All this surprised Senator Sam very much, for he was a shy man. He announced that he would not seek another term, because he was getting too old to finish it. Or at least this was what he thought. He was seventy-five.
On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon appeared on television to tell the American people he was resigning the presidency. The new President, Ford, one month later gave Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon" for any offenses he might have committed in office.
For those who appreciated irony, it was irony that Nixon who professed to admire Woodrow Wilson met his fate at the hands of a committee headed by the most devout Southern Presbyterian on Capitol Hill since Wilson.
In 1975 Senator Ervin left Washington to go home to Morganton. He said North Carolina was the best place this side of heaven. That made the admiration mutual, for a poll at this time showed the Senator as the state's most admired person. A biography,
A Good Man, by Dick Dabney (Houghton Mifflin) was in process.
Memories of his career in Washington must have crowded on him as he left. He must have wondered in all those years what the greatest hour was. His role in the Watergate investigation most said.
But earlier than that in 1970, Nixon had sent a bill on crime in the District of Columbia to the Senate. Senator Ervin was dismayed at the implications of the bill and fought it. But the District of Columbia Crime Bill was passed by the Congress. Along with the Drug Control Act, which was also passed in 1970, it contained a "no knock" provision which provided for the issuance of "no knock" arrest and search warrants. It was reminiscent of Stalin's methods in Russia.
The second most interesting part for the District of Columbia Crime Bill was the length of a Victorian novel and horror followed horror. This was not reminiscent of Stalin. It was reminiscent of Hitler's Germany when Nazis dressed as priests to hear confessions to find who was helping Jews. Technology, however, had gone beyond pretending. Progress was marching on. The bill allowed the bugging of confessionals and churches, secrets told to clergymen and God.
However, Senator Ervin kept fighting and in 1974 he and Senator Gaylord Nelson offered an amendment repealing the "no knock" provisions of the Crime Bill and the Drug Control Bill. Congress did pass the amendment. However, the other parts of the Crime Bill remained.
It was interesting that this man, who toured the battlefields of the "lost cause" for relaxation, should have found perhaps his greatest hour in 1970 defending what seemed another lost cause, the maintenance of traditionally sacred American freedoms from erosion.
Yet, as Senator Ervin left Washington, he realized that President Nixon had not been stymied because of Hitleresque eavesdropping in confessionals, Stalin-like bursting into homes, and possible plots on the lives of world leaders, possibly unconstitutional actions, mail openings, paranoid impulses and totalitarian views. He had told a lie and recorded it. It was like accidentally stopping one of the ten most wanted on a traffic violation. Anybody could see the literal lesson and the next Nixon would not record on tape.
Barbara Tuchman, the historian, has theorized that in history an emphasis on material things has meant a consequent loss in aesthetic and moral standards from non-interest. It was perhaps inevitable, but a considerable price in diluted standards has been paid for material progress. And no one was more conscious of this than Senator Sam as he left Capitol Hill, that out there in the rampant commercialism of spirit, the spiritual poverty, the intellectual hubris, and the socially conventional amorality, other and more deadly Nixons might be evolving out of the moral slime. Senator Sam was an honest man concerned for the future of his country.
Senator Sam has often said that all men are "travelers to the tomb." He would, he knew that, one day join his ancestors in the churchyard at Morganton. He could one day depart satisfied that he had inherited a tradition of moral distinction and personal integrity, and in knowing that he had greatly, even bravely, passed it on. It was due to such as himself that Senator Sam could remark: "There is a great reservoir of morality, ethics and religion in our people."
Yet, when Senator Sam reached eighty he was asked if he had any birthday advice to give. He said not. He was refraining. In his life he said that he had given a million dollars worth of advice, but only fifteen cents worth had been taken. He thus left the scene, his Presbyterian view of the nature of man illuminated by characteristic wit.
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