This series about the life of Edward B. (“Ned”) Burling commenced with a post about his connections with Katherine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, and then retreated in time to a post about his birth and early years in Iowa, 1870-1890, followed by a post about his four years at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1890-1894, another post about his 22 years as a Chicago attorney, 1895-1917, a post about his two years as a federal government attorney in Washington, D.C., 1917-1918 and another about his 48 years as a prominent private attorney in Washington D.C., 1919-1966.
Friendship with Learned Hand
Burling and Learned Hand met for the first time in their first year at Harvard Law School in 1891 and thereafter developed a life-long friendship while Hand was an eminent federal judge.  Burling once said, Hand was “much more intelligent [than other people and] appreciates me and understands me. [He is] … the only worthy recipient of my most intimate confessions.” These confessions included the following:
- “One of my present theories is that it doesn’t pay to be good.”
- “I know [in 1925] I do not want to practice law. I know I do not want to be a judge. I know I want to have pleasant, amiable, witty, gay people around me. I know I am tired of politics . . . . I want poetry, love, wine, interesting books, wide, comfortable bed with fresh bed clothing, looking out into gardens with bloomi ng trees . . . . I want to be moderately rich and have nice food and a smooth running automobile. . . . Somehow I feel I am going to get what I want.”
- In 1959, Burling lamented that he was “afflicted with what you call ‘frivolousness’ ” and that “this human pilgrimage seems to me really more awful, more terrifying and more pathetic than it does to most other people. I cannot bear to admit how terrible it really is. Therefore, I act in a rather silly fashion. I do the inappropriate thing. I offend the earnest, godfearing company. What I am apt to say sounds in bad taste.”
In 1925, Burling and Hand exchanged comments about the good life that were prompted by questions from a young man who was thinking about applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. Burling, advising the young man not to apply and instead to go into business, said that he believed four things were good: (1) “Freedom from compulsion by others, whether economic, social or political.” (2) “An active mind that keeps being interested in the changing panorama and its own operation.” (3) “Direct contact with nature.” (4) “The society of the few people of whom you are really fond.” This list, Burling added, did not include “success, power, achievement, position, least of all ‘service to humanity.'” Hand disagreed, saying that the man should apply for the Scholarship and that “the life of the mind offers the most permanent and lasting satisfactions.”
Burling also shared with Hand observations about the political events of the day, including the following:
- After the end of World War I Burling criticized the League of Nations as proposed by President Woodrow Wilson because it was not like the league Teddy Roosevelt had proposed, i.e., it was “not an association between nations freely entered into for the purpose of preserving boundaries established by tradition and usage”and instead was “an alliance for the purpose of perpetuating a military ascendancy over defeated nations.”
- After the 1928 Republican Party convention, Burling said, “Never was a man of God [Herbert Hoover] more ably assisted by gentlemen who are not unknown in more worldly haunts.” Hoover “will smother Al. Smith–He is an extraordinary phenomenon. He will dominate American affairs for 8 years and after that will be the arbiter. . . . [You] will also see Hoover playing the game very successfully. . . . It will be the most powerful administration in the memory of man–and he will be a good party man. He will run the party. A man of God who is practical–you cant [sic] beat that combination.” (Emphasis added.) Apparently Burling had forgotten his inability to get along with Hoover at the U.S. food Administration in 1917. Ned also did not anticipate the Great Depression and FDR.
- Soon after the start of what became World War II, Ned observed that “the thing for old men to do is to be as gay as we can be and just recognize that all things are subject to change. . . . There is something in us that craves permanence, finality; and yet we should be able to see that it is and always has been an idle dream. I am not in the least an optimist. . . . I think it is quite possible that for centuries the world will get worse, and that the world will be ruled by murder, treachery, brute force, but if that is the kind of animal man is, the thing to do is to recognize it and made such adjustments to it as are necessary. We always knew that in the past civilization had fallen before inroads of vigorous barbarians. What we did not foresee was that barbarians may organize in our very midst. But if that is what it is, we must deal with it as it is. . . .” Burling continued, “Although . . . society may proceed downward for centuries, I am rather inclined to think that will not be true. I rather think that this is like the eruption of a violent disease, and that the disease will subside. I think there must be many many people in the world who would like to surpress the armed murderer [Hitler?], and I believe that sometime they will be able to assert their power and that there will be an armed force controlled in the interest of a peaceful world that will keep the law breakers down.”
- In the Spring of 1950 while touring Europe, Ned thought it not apparent “why the U.S.A. is first power in the world. Europe as a whole seems to me to have a sturdier population with more dependable qualities, the soil is fertile and it has all the natural resources. In the long run it may be that Europe will maintain its primacy.”
- In the summer of 1952 Ned reacted to the presidential nominations of Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower. Stevenson, he believed, “will be hard to beat. His two speeches before the [Democratic] Convention were different from most political addresses. In the contest with Ike, he is going to be on his own ground. Ike is a novice. But in any case we are fortunate in having two such candidates.”
- Ike and Nixon, of course, won the 1952 election, and four years later, Ned reflected on a re-run of the 1952 election. He was most pleased by “the way Truman fell on his face [at the Democratic Convention]. He seemed to me like a bouncy monkey on a stick” or “a very cheap little ward politician.” Ned added, “The charm that Eisenhower’s personality exerts is an extraordinary phenomenon. But the Republican Party is relying too much on that. . . . After all, since 1952 the Democrats have been winning about every election–local and national. And [Adlai] Stevenson is a much abler campaigner that he was four years ago. And many, many people will not vote Republican because of Nixon.”
- During the 1964 presidential campaign, Ned supported Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat, against Barry Goldwater, the Republican. At a White House dinner, Burling told Johnson that as the sole survivor of the Bull Moose Party, Burling could assure Johnson that he had the unanimous support of that Party.
- Just after the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson as President in January 1965, one of Burling’s friends reported that at the annual dinner of one of their clubs, Richard Nixon had given a very witty “acceptance” speech for their satirical nomination of him for President. Nixon described himself as “the most over-nominated and under-elected man in history.” Nixon continued by saying that he was opposed to the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren because at 73 the justice was an old man and instead should be retired by setting age 72 as a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court Justices and that “Bobby Kennedy was engaged in the process of becoming the father of his country.”
The above tidbits were discovered in my rummaging through Judge Learned Hand’s file of correspondence with Ned that was part of the Hand Papers at the Harvard Law School Library. When I finished reading the file, I was disappointed that most of the letters discussed what seemed like trivial matters and did not engage in intelligent discussions of the important issues of the day. I had forgotten that they were dear friends who enjoyed staying in touch and looking forward to being together again.
The next and penultimate chapter in this account of the life of Burling will discuss the character of the man.
 Citations to the sources for this post are found in this blogger’s Edward Burnham Burling, The College’s Quiet Benefactor (April 2008)(18-page essay and bibliography; on file in Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives).
 The definitive biography of the judge, Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge (2d ed., Oxford University Press, 2011), was written by Gerald Gunther (1927-2002), a prominent constitutional law scholar and professor at Stanford Law School.
2 thoughts on “Edward B. Burling’s Life-Long Friendship with Learned Hand”