Edward B. Burling: The Character of the Man

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. The last highlighted his long friendship with Learned Hand, a notable federal judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Now we examine Burling’s overall character. [1]

Burling’s Generosity

Ned accumulated substantial wealth through the practice of law and investments, and his generosity was shown by his gift of $700,000 to his alma mater, Grinnell College, towards the Burling Library‘s total cost in 1959 of $1.3 million ($6.0 million of $11.1 million in February 2018 dollars) But he insisted the Library not be named after him; instead, as the original plaque at its entrance stated, it was named “in memory of Lucy B. Burling 1841-1936,” the benefactor’s mother.

He also made other direct, usually anonymous, gifts to the College  plus financing some students’ expenses. In short, he was a major contributor to the College. Other gifts to the College by his second wife and widow, Bertha Blake Burling, were the Burling mansion in the Embassy Row area of Washington, D.C. and their Maine summer cottage.

Burling also endowed the College’s Linn Smith Prize for Excellence in Mathematics. Smith was a native Iowan and a 1920 honors math graduate of Grinnell who drowned while taking care of Burling’s two young sons at New Hampshire’s Cornish Colony and whom Burling unsuccessfully tried to rescue. Burling was very upset about the drowning and said that Smith was “sweet tempered, devoted and unselfish. If he had been meaner or more faithless, or selfish he would have survived. . . . He had this notion which poor boys that go to Grinnell are apt to get, that is they glory in sacrificing themselves, go without food, go without pleasure, generally go without and your record is sure. I say the only consequence of that philosophy is that you get nothing.”

His generosity was not limited to the College. He anonymously helped other young people attend other colleges and cope with other necessities. After his death, his widow endowed the Edward B. Burling Chair in International Law and Diplomacy at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Ned along with Paul Nitze (a U.S. diplomat) and Christian Herter (another U.S. Secretary of State) had helped to establish this School in the 1940’s, and Burling had served on its Advisory Council until his death. In similar vein, some of his friends established a scholarship in his name at the Harvard Law School.

Burling’s Other Qualities

After his death some of his friends added their tributes. Dean Acheson, his law partner and former Secretary of State, said that Burling often gave the impression of “being tough, and worldly, and cynical and brutal,” but he really was generous, warm and compassionate. Burling was known, said  Acheson, for a “rare originality and power of mind, a teasing sardonic wit and willful friendships and dislikes.”

Thomas Gardiner Corcoran described his friend as “Poet born, his poetic imagination penetrated everything he touched–the breakthrough of the Bull Moose movement–the law firm he transmuted from a ‘dusty answer’ to the excitement of a 51st state–the self-regenerating waves of compassionate intelligence he se moving as a part of all he met–and he met everybody.” In addition, Corcoran noted, “Uncle Ned lived beyond himself in the hundreds of younger men he gave courage to outdo themselves in confidence of his never-failing support win or lose.”

In similar vein, another friend, John Lord O’Brian, said, “His deep personal interest in the affairs of [C&B} . . . and the selection of partners and associates became his chief interest. This, however, did not prevent his accumulating a group of remarkable friends chiefly in the field of public affairs. His quizzical humor and occasional affectations of worldliness concealed a curiously sensitive and compassionate nature, and gave a unique flavor to his personality. Always reticent about his personal affairs, he was singularly generous in his gifts and discriminating in his help to innumerable individuals.”

The Burling genealogist described Ned as “[a]ambitious and brilliant . . .; personable, charming, and gregarious (many friends and acquaintances of high standing); robust; outspoken and humorous . . .; largely generous.” On the other hand, according to the genealogist, he was “careless of personal relationships, and evidently not too well suited to monogamy.” Indeed, he once shocked a young relative by asking what she thought about his having had many extramarital affairs.

One of his closest friends concluded that Ned was exceptional in “his extraordinary capacity for drawing into the circle of his friendship men gifted with unusual intellectual perceptiveness” or “men of extraordinary ability.” The previous list of frequent guests at Burling’s Cabin is but a brief glimpse at this circle of friendship. Ned was also skillful in “drawing out the views of other people while he himself listened” and “the interplay of his whimsical humor that produced the charm and the flavor.”


Humble or modest he was not. At age 96, he said, “I was a piece of good luck for father, mother, brother and two sisters. To some extent, some more and some less, they were benefited by my being in the world.”

The concluding post in this series will share this blogger’s joy in researching and writing about Burling (and another Grinnell College eminent alumnus, Joseph Welch).


[1[ 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).