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.”

Conclusion

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).

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[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).

 

 

 

 

Edward B. Burling, The  Prominent Washington, D.C. Attorney, 1919-1966

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, and a post about his two years as a federal government attorney in Washington, D.C., 1917-1918.[1]

Burling’s Private Legal Career in Washington, D.C.

In 1919, Burling co-founded the Covington & Burling law firm (C&B and n/k/a Covington) and thereafter served as its de facto managing partner. In the words of his partner and former U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Ned helped to create “a practical organization, engaged in achieving practical ends, for real people, who were in real trouble.” To that end, Burling hired talented recent law school graduates, gave them responsibility as soon as possible and compensated them on the basis of merit, rather than seniority.” Burling also developed a personal practice focusing on corporate transactions and federal taxation.

C&B’s first big case shortly after its founding was a contingent fee case for the Kingdom of Norway against the United States for $16 million arising out of the U.S. taking of contracts for ship construction during World War I. For assistance, Burling hired his old law school friend, George Rublee, and the 28-year old Acheson, who had just finished a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Recognizing Acheson’s talents, Ned asked him to argue an important and difficult issue in the six-week hearing before the arbitral panel at the Peace Palace at The Hague. During the young Acheson’s argument, Burling slipped him a terse note: “Shut up.” Acheson, however, ignored this order and continued the argument, which lead to an important concession by the other side (the U.S.). The result was a 1922 award of nearly $US 12 million to Norway and a subsequent Norwegian knighthood for Burling.

Later Burling ironically pointed out that after Acheson made his very first court argument at the Peace Palace, the rest of his legal career would all be downhill. Fortunately for the law firm and the U.S. that was not true. Whenever Acheson was not holding high positions in the U.S. Government, he was practicing law at C&B. Through it all, Acheson and Ned had a strong friendship. Shortly after Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949, Burling wrote to him,

  • “I have been impressed by the growing kindness and consideration for others that you have shown. The absence of any feeling of importance is rare in one who has attained the high office that is yours. And at the same time a growing strength is apparent. Your head has always been better than other heads but once you were inclined to defer to more assertiveness. You show less of that trait. And you have no reason to yield your opinion when you have come to a considered conclusion. You have a right to believe that your conclusion is probably better than what will be offered by anyone else. So trust in yourself and go ahead and do a swell job for the world.”

A year later, Burling observed that Acheson was “one of our great men. Great, I mean, looking at the entire history of our country. I am greatly impressed by the way he has grown. He is a powerful figure.”

As noted in previous post about Burling and Katherine Graham, on October 3, 1996, Edward B. Burling died at age 96 in Washington Hospital Center. According to an editorial in his honor in the Post that Graham may have helped write,  Burling was the city’s “grand old man of the law [who from] the days when he was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1894, with one of the best records ever made there, he had been an outstanding legal scholar. And with the law as the base of his operations, he also  exerted a substantial influence in the fields of business, government and community relations.”

The editorial also stated that at the C&B law firm the “scholarly and retiring Mr. Burling, who made a specialty of cultivating and training brilliant young lawyers, was chiefly responsible  for keeping the firm’s performance  at a high level of professional excellence.”

Covington is still one of the world’s preeminent law firms with over 1,000 lawyers in 12 offices in the U.S. and around the world, and it remains dedicated to the founders’ values of excellence, tolerance, integrity and commitment to public service and professionalism [1]

Conclusion

We next will look at some of the highlights of Burling’s life-long friendship with Learned Hand.

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[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).

 

 

 

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.