Edward John Phelps

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Edward John Phelps
Professor Edward J Phelps.jpg
Edward John Phelps
Born (1822-07-11)July 11, 1822
Middlebury, Vermont
Died March 9, 1900(1900-03-09) (aged 77)
New Haven, Connecticut
Nationality American
Education Middlebury College
Yale Law School
Occupation Lawyer, politician, educator
Known for Controller of the United States Treasury, ambassador to England, one of the founders and President of the American Bar Association

Edward John Phelps (July 11, 1822 – March 9, 1900) was an American lawyer and diplomat from Vermont.


Phelps' father Samuel S. Phelps had been a U.S. Senator from Vermont. Edward Phelps was born in Middlebury, graduated from Middlebury College in 1840, and worked as a school teacher and principal in Virginia. He studied law at the Yale Law School, completed his studies in the office of Horatio Seymour, and began practicing in Middlebury in 1843. Phelps moved to Burlington in 1845.[1]

Professional and academic life

From 1851 to 1853 he was second controller of the United States Treasury. He then practiced law in New York City until 1857, when he returned to Burlington.[1] Originally a Whig, after that party's demise he became a Democrat. He served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1870.[2]

Phelps was one of the founders of the American Bar Association and was its president in 1880-1881. From 1881 until his death he was Kent Professor of Law at Yale Law School.[2]

Political activities

In 1880 Phelps was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont. Democrats were a perpetual minority in Vermont, and lost every statewide election from the 1850s to the 1960s. 1880 was no exception, and Phelps was excoriated as an unrepentant Copperhead:

Had he maintained his resolution to accept no political nomination, the memory of his attitude during the memory of his attitude from 1860 to 1865 might have quite died; but the Democratic nomination and his speech of acceptance, in which, with surprising want of tact, he aired afresh his old hatred of the African and attacked the Southern Republicans, white and black, with a virulence which few Southern Democrats could equal … have brought it into strong prominence. Still stronger light has been thrown on it by the publication of a careful stenographic report of a speech made by Mr. Phelps in September, 1864, before a little club of Copperheads in Burlington. In this he called Mr. Lincoln a 'wooden-head' and a 'twentieth-rate back country attorney,' declared that the North was fighting simply to 'turn loose all the [racial epithet]' and 'whitewash the [racial epithet] in the blood of millions[.].[3]

Phelps was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889, and in 1893 served as senior counsel for the United States before the international tribunal at Paris to settle the Bering Sea Controversy. His closing argument,[4] requiring eleven days for its delivery, was an exhaustive review of the case. The ruling favored the British, and the Americans were denied the exclusive jurisdiction they had claimed.

Phelps lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Vermont in 1881-1883, and on constitutional law at Boston University in 1882-1883, and delivered numerous addresses, among them The United States Supreme Court and the Sovereignty of the People at the centennial celebration of the Federal Judiciary in 1890, and an oration at the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument, unveiled in 1891 at the centennial of Vermont's admission to the Union.

In politics, Phelps was always conservative, opposing the anti-slavery movement before 1860, the free-silver movement in 1896, when he supported the Republican presidential ticket, and after 1898 becoming an ardent "anti-expansionist."[2]

President Grover Cleveland intended to appoint him as U.S. Chief Justice in 1888, but Phelps was concerned that his tenure as ambassador to the Court of St. James's in Great Britain would cause the Democratic Party to lose the support of Irish Americans, and he declined.[1]

Phelps died in New Haven, Connecticut. Former Yale University president Timothy Dwight V eulogized Phelps.[5] He was buried in Burlington's Greenmount Cemetery.


"The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything." From a speech given at the Mansion House in London on January 24, 1899, quoting Bishop W. C. Magee of Peterborough in 1868.[6]

"Better a hundred times an honest and capable administration of an erroneous policy than a corrupt and incapable administration of a good one." Spoken at a dinner of the New York Chamber of Commerce.[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Edward John Phelps". Find a Grave. Retrieved September 3, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Chisholm 1911.
  3. New York Times, "Vermont Ready to Vote," September 1, 1880, page 1
  4. John Phelps, Edward; John Griffith McCullough (1901). Orations & Essays of Edward John Phelps: Diplomat and Statesman. Harper & Brothers. p. 475.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Funeral of E.J. Phelps". The New York Times. March 12, 1900.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Edward J. Phelps, American jurist and diplomatist".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2F1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica%2FPhelps%2C_Edward_John "Phelps, Edward John" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>