Francis Beverly Biddle (1886–1968)

2011-12-01 09:12:04

Francis Biddle, the scion of a family that emigrated to America in the early seventeenth century, attended private schools, including Harvard College, from which he graduated cum laude, and the Harvard Law School, where he received an LL.B. in 1911. He then served one year as a secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes, a fellow patrician, influenced Biddle greatly, and he claimed in his memoirs that Holmes had not only reinforced his latent sense of noblesse oblige but also turned him into a liberal. He would later write both a biography of the justice as well as a book on his legal philosophy.

In 1912, he joined the family law firm in Philadelphia, but a few years later he struck out on his own and established a new firm. A successful Philadelphia lawyer, Biddle’s clients included both the Pennsylvania Railroad and labor unions, and in 1927 he published a novel, Llanfear Pattern, which was highly critical of Philadelphia’s inbred elite society.

Nominally a Republican, he became increasingly disillusioned with the party in the 1920s. He recalled that he had seen ‘‘the dark and dismal conditions under which the miners lived, and the brutality that was dealt them if they tried to improve things.’’ Opposed to Herbert Hoover’s handling of labor issues, Biddle campaigned against him and worked for the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt awarded him with several appointments in New Deal programs, and Biddle chaired the special commission that cleared the Tennessee Valley Authority of charges of corruption. In 1939, Roosevelt nominated him to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Within a short time Biddle grew bored with the job, and in 1940 resigned from the bench to become solicitor general. He won all fifteen cases he argued in the Supreme Court defending New Deal measures.

In 1941, Roosevelt named Robert H. Jackson to the Supreme Court and appointed Biddle to take his place as attorney general. He served in that office for four years, during which he oversaw the administration’s handling of civil liberties issues during World War II.

For the most part, Biddle received good marks from civil libertarians. The Roosevelt administration, unlike that of Wilson in World War I, did not launch a wholesale attack on aliens or radicals, and did not try to either suppress radical speech or criticism of the Roosevelt administration. Moreover, Biddle took advantage of a ruling in which the Supreme Court held that federal antisubversion laws preempted state measures, and thus prevented the ‘‘little Red scares’’ of the 1920s.

The great failing in Biddle’s administration, one that he later acknowledged, was his reluctant implementation and defense of the internment of Japanese Americans. Not until after Biddle’s death in 1968 did evidence come out that middle-ranking officials in both the War Department and the Solicitor General’s Office knew that the Japanese Americans posed no threat to American security, and that no proof of any sort had ever been found that they were involved in either espionage or sabotage. They deliberately withheld this information not only from the Supreme Court but from Biddle as well. A dedicated civil libertarian, it is highly unlikely that Biddle would have given his assent to the program had he been in possession of the facts.

Biddle also prosecuted several cases under the Alien Registration Act, but he refused to use it for witch-hunting of radicals, as its sponsors had hoped. While tens of thousands of German and Italian aliens were registered shortly after the United States entered the war, the Justice Department made sure that the process was carried out in such a way as to maintain the dignity of the aliens.

One should note that Biddle also knew, thanks to the work that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had done in the 1930s, just which aliens did support fascist ideology, but thanks to the FBI, practically none of them proved able to do damage to the American war effort.

With the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, Biddle’s days in the Justice Department were limited, and at Harry Truman’s request he resigned in June. Truman, however, then named Biddle as one of the American judges on the international tribunal that tried former Nazi leaders for ‘‘crimes against humanity.’’ Although there has been some criticism of the Nuremburg trials as ex post facto proceedings, at the time most people believed that it was right to try to impose a rule of law on wartime atrocities. Certainly the trials provided not only a means to expose the full extent of Nazi actions, but were far better than the older method of taking the losers out into the prison yard and shooting them. At the close of the trials, Biddle recommended to Truman that provocation of aggressive wars should, in the future, be declared a crime under international law.

Truman then tried to name Biddle as the U.S. representative to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but the Republican-controlled Senate blocked the appointment because Biddle was considered too liberal. Rather than go through a bruising confirmation fight, which he would surely have lost, Biddle asked Truman to remove his name.

Although he never again held appointed office, Biddle remained active in politics, and chaired the liberal interest group, Americans for Democratic Action, from 1950 through 1953. During those years he was an active foe of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, and repeatedly denounced McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities for their witch-hunting tactics, smear campaigns, and efforts to censor school textbooks. His most cogent case against McCarthyism is in his 1951 book, The Fear of Freedom.


References and Further Reading

  • Biddle, Francis. In Brief Authority. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962 
  • Murphy, Paul L. The Constitution in Crisis Times, 1918– 1969. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.