(b. Morganton, North Carolina, 27 Sept. 1896; d. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 23 Apr. 1985)
US; member of the US House of Representatives 1946–7; US Senator 1954–74; chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate 1973–4 Ervin graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1917. After service in France during the First World War, when he was twice cited for gallantry, he graduated LLB from Harvard Law School in 1922 and began practising law in Morganton. He served for several years as a circuit judge at county level.
His political career began in 1923 when he was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly. He was re-elected in 1925 and 1931. His debut in national politics came in 1946 when he was elected US representative to fill a vacancy caused by the death of his brother, Joseph W. Ervin. He did not seek re-election to the lower house but in 1954 was appointed to the US Senate, also to fill a vacancy. Regular re-election followed until 1974 when he decided to retire and return to his Morganton law practice.
Ervin was a Southern Democrat. In the 1950s and 1960s he opposed civil rights legislation designed to improve the position of blacks. He supported the policy of containment, accepted the high levels of military expenditure this entailed, and supported American intervention in Vietnam. His conservatism did not extend to condoning the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he voted to censure in 1954. He also opposed a national system of surveillance of dissidents in 1970.
During his twenty years as a Senator Ervin acquired a reputation as an authority on American constitutional law. This led to his appointment as chairman of Watergate committee hearings. Though a courteous Southerner with a folksy manner, Ervin was determined that constitutional propriety should be upheld. This turned him into a formidable opponent of the perpetrators of the Watergate débâcle and it led to fierce televised clashes with President Nixon and his aides. Showing characteristic modesty, Ervin described himself as ‘just an ol' country lawyer from Dixie’ but the part he played in the Watergate investigations transformed him into a guardian of the constitution and American folk hero.
Despite his self-deprecating claims, Sam Ervin was no simple backwoodsman. He was a widely read, erudite man, famed for his inexhaustible store of quotations. He was a shrewd politician, of broadly conservative but independent judgement and unshakeable dedication to constitutional principles. After retiring from the Senate in 1974 he wrote his own account of Watergate and published his autobiography, Preserving the Constitution.