Edward B. Burling, The Federal Government Attorney, 1917-1918

This series about the life of Edward B. 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 and another about his 22 years as a Chicago attorney, 1895-1917.[1]

The Federal Government Attorney

In 1917, at age 47, Burling finally did manage to leave Chicago to go to Washington, D.C. Though the urging of a law school friend, he became a lawyer for the U.S. Food Administration,  which was an agency for the purchase and sale of foodstuffs and stabilizing the U.S. market price of wheat and which was directed by Herbert Hoover, another native Iowan from the small town of West Branch and, of course, a future U.S. President.

However, the two men did not get along with one another, and Ned immediately left this position to be a lawyer (and then General Counsel) for the U.S. Shipping Board, which was responsible for organizing U.S. shipyards during World War I, a position he held through the end of the war in 1918.

Burling relished the life of a top government lawyer. As he said at the time to his friend Learned Hand, “It’s like expecting a country girl who has spent her entire life milking cows to go back contentedly after she has been to the city–seen the bright lights and been screwed. That’s the way I feel–my first big screw. And I want more of it.”

At the Shipping Board Burling crossed paths with another future Grinnell College luminary, Joseph Welch, then one of its young lawyers.  Welch later observed that in 1918 he was 28 while Burling was 48 and whenever he wrote a letter for Burling’s signature, Ned’s “first act was to seize a pen and sign it. Then you would read it and often suggest a change. But that beautiful gesture of confidence gave me so much happiness,” and Welch thereafter emulated that practice.[1]

Later Connections Between Burling and Joseph Welch

Parenthetically, 36 years later, in 1954, their paths again crossed, albeit indirectly.  One of Welch’s clients in the Army-McCarthy hearings at that time, John G. Adams, thought that Welch was not doing a good job in defending him before the committee. As a result, Adams met with Burling to see if Covington & Burling could represent Adams. Burling’s response: Adams probably would not want the firm to represent him because one of its partners (Donald Hiss) was the brother of Alger Hiss, who had been convicted in 1950 for having provided classified documents to an admitted Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Having Burling’s law firm represent Adams, it was suggested, would leave the firm and Adams open to an attack by McCarthy. As a result, the law firm did not enter the McCarthy arena.

Indeed, the law firm’s connections with Donald and Alger Hiss were deep. In July 1949 Alger Hiss’ federal-court trial for perjury for testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee ended in a hung jury, splitting 8 to 4 for conviction. Burling and his law partners were upset by the lack of an acquittal, and Burling thought Hiss’ well known attorney had made serious errors in defending the case.[2]

Conclusion

The next installment in this series about Burling will be a summary of his distinguished career as a Washington, D.C. attorney in private practice, 1919-1966.

============================================

[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).

[2] Posts about Joseph Welch are listed in the “Joseph Welch and Senator Joseph McCarthy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: United States (HISTORY).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.