Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch

Joseph Welch suddenly appeared on the national stage in 1954 at the age of 63. Where did he come from? Who was he?

Upbringing

Welch was born on October 22, 1890, on a farm near the tiny Iowa town of Primghar, the youngest of seven children. His parents were poor English immigrants who came to Iowa in a covered wagon from Illinois. As a boy, he often watched trials in the county courthouse and was impressed with a lawyer’s ability to say “Strike that out” and eliminate what had been said. He worked in a real estate office for two years after completing high school to save money for college.

Education

Welch was the straight-A valedictorian of the Primghar High School class of 1908.

Primghar High School
Grinnell College

Welch attended Iowa’s Grinnell College, my alma mater, from 1910 through 1914, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, Phi Beta Kappa (1914). [1]  He majored in economics and political science. He was active in debate and tennis and served as Editor-in-Chief of the College’s annual yearbook.  Welch later observed that Grinnell gave him four important things—an appreciation of literature and the beauty of words, development of speaking abilities, appreciation of music and a chance to dream and explore spiritual issues.

Austin Hall,                  Harvard Law School

Welch then went on to Harvard Law School, 1914 to 1917, receiving a LL.B. degree in 1917.  Welch was second in his class and a member of the staff of the Harvard Law Review and its Book Review Editor. Also on the Review with him were Dean Acheson, later a partner of Edward B. Burling (Grinnell, 1890) and U.S. Secretary of State, and Archibald MacLeish, later known for his poetry.

Legal Career

After a brief period as a private in the Army near the end of World War I and as a lawyer for the U.S. Shipping Board in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Burling was his supervisor, Welch started practicing law with the Boston firm of Hale and Dorr in 1919. He became a junior partner almost immediately and soon was the firm’s primary trial attorney. He handled all kinds of civil cases in state and federal courts in New England. He particularly liked antitrust cases (for the defense), libel cases (for the plaintiff), will and estate cases and tax cases. He came to be known as a “lawyer’s lawyer” and for his skill in cross-examination.

The Sacco-Venzetti Case

Vanzetti & Sacco

The public emotions over Senator McCarthy were presaged for Welch by the Sacco-Vanzetti case in Boston just as Welch was starting the practice of law in that city. In 1920-21, two Italian anarchists living in Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by a Massachusetts trial court for murdering a factory paymaster and his guard. There was a widespread belief that they were convicted because of their political opinions, rather than committing the murders. As a result, there were protests in the U.S. and throughout the world. Such protests continued until and after their executions in 1927. It was the cause célèbre of the time.

Prof. Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter, then Professor at the Harvard Law School, chaired the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Fund, and Welch as a young lawyer in Boston apparently helped to raise money for the fund.  In the year before the executions, Welch’s friend and law firm colleague, Herbert Ehrmann, became one of the lawyers representing Sacco and Vanzetti, and Welch also knew another of their attorneys as well as the trial judge. As a result, Welch was very close to the case although he did not participate himself.

This case, Welch later said, “tortured” him. The trial judge was “an awful damned fool.” Sacco and Vanzetti, in Welch’s opinion, had not received a fair trial, and Welch had grave doubts about their guilt. The night the two men were executed shattered him, and the case tormented him for the rest of his life. As a result, Welch became an opponent of capital punishment.

Family Life

In September 1917 Welch married Judith Lyndon. They had two sons, Joseph Nye, Jr. and Lyndon, both of whom became engineers.


[1] I heard Welch speak at Grinnell College in the Fall of 1957, but I was too shy to introduce myself to him and engage him in conversation. Later I conducted research about Welch. Two of Grinnell’s other notables—Hallie Flanagan, the Director of the Federal Theatre Project in the New Deal, and Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration in the New Deal and an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt—were also Grinnell students at the same time as Welch. It would be interesting to find out whether Welch had any contacts with Hopkins or Flanagan during their college years or afterwards.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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