Edward John Phelps

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Edward John Phelps (July 11, 1822 – March 9, 1900) was a lawyer and diplomat from Vermont. He is notable for his service as Envoy to Court of St. James's from 1885 to 1889. In addition, Phelps was a founder of the American Bar Association, and served as its president from 1880 to 1881.

Edward John Phelps
Professor Edward J Phelps.jpg
United States Minister to the United Kingdom
In office
May 19, 1885 – January 31, 1889
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byJames Russell Lowell
Succeeded byRobert Todd Lincoln
President of the American Bar Association
In office
Preceded byBenjamin Bristow
Succeeded byClarkson Nott Potter
Second Comptroller of the Treasury
In office
Preceded byHiland Hall
Succeeded byJohn M. Brodhead
Personal details
Born(1822-07-11)July 11, 1822
Middlebury, Vermont
DiedMarch 9, 1900(1900-03-09) (aged 77)
New Haven, Connecticut
Resting placeGreenmount Cemetery, Burlington, Vermont
Political partyWhig (before 1854)
Democratic (from 1854)
Spouse(s)Mary Haight (m. 1845-1900, his death)
Parent(s)Samuel S. Phelps
Francis (Shurtleff) Phelps
EducationMiddlebury College
Yale Law School

A prominent Democrat even as Vermont was trending towards the Republicans, Phelps was the son of Senator Samuel S. Phelps and his first wife, Francis (Shurtleff) Phelps. Edward Phelps graduated from Middlebury College in 1840, taught school in Virginia, and studied for a career as an attorney, first in the office of Middlebury attorney Horatio Seymour, then at Yale Law School. He practiced in Burlington, and served as Second Comptroller of the Treasury from 1851 to 1853. Phelps supported the Union during the American Civil War, but was a critic of what he regarded as the excesses of the Abraham Lincoln administration. He served as a delegate to the Vermont constitutional convention of 1870, and was one of the founders of the American Bar Association.[1] Phelps served as ABA president from 1880 to 1881. In 1880, he was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont.

Phelps was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889. He later taught law at Yale Law School, the University of Vermont, and Boston University. He supported Republicans after 1896, in response to his disagreement with the Democratic Party's turn towards the Free Silver movement. He died in New Haven, Connecticut, and was buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Burlington.

Early lifeEdit

Phelps was born in Middlebury, Vermont on July 11, 1822, the son of Samuel S. Phelps and Francis (Shurtleff) Phelps.[2][3] He was educated in the schools of Middlebury and then began attendance at Middlebury College, from which he graduated in 1840.[2] He worked as a school teacher and principal in Virginia, then began studying law in the Middlebury office of Horatio Seymour.[2][a] Phelps completed his legal studies with a year at Yale Law School, attained admission to the bar in 1843, and began a practice in Middlebury.[2] Phelps moved to Burlington in 1845, where he continued to practice law.[2]

Start of careerEdit

Phelps practiced in Burlington with different partners at various times, the most prominent being Lucius E. Chittenden and David Allen Smalley.[4][5] The Phelps and Smalley firm counted George F. Edmunds among the prospective attorneys who studied law under their tutelage.[4]

Originally a Whig, after that party's demise he became a Democrat.[4] In 1851, Phelps was the successful Whig nominee for state's attorney of Chittenden County, defeating Democrat Leverett B. Englesby in the general election.[6] He received a federal appointment before assuming office, and Aaron B. Maynard filled the vacancy.[7] From 1851 to 1853, Phelps served as Second Comptroller of the Treasury.[2] He then practiced law in New York City as a partner in Wakeman, Latting & Phelps, the senior partner of which was Abram Wakeman.[8] He returned to Burlington in 1857 and resumed practicing law.[1] Phelps 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 from 1880 to 1881.[2] He also served as a trustee of the Vermont State Library, a position he held for more than 20 years.[9] From 1881 until his death he was Kent Professor of Law at Yale Law School.[2] Phelps lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Vermont from 1881 to 1883, and on constitutional law at Boston University from 1882 to 1883.[9]

Continued careerEdit

In politics, Phelps was always conservative. He opposed the anti-slavery movement before 1860, the free-silver movement in 1896, when he supported the Republican presidential ticket, and after 1898 becoming an "anti-expansionist" with respect to American foreign policy.[1][10]

In 1880 Phelps was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont.[2] Democrats were a perpetual minority in Vermont, and lost every statewide election from the 1850s to the 1960s.[2] 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[.]'.[11]

Phelps was Envoy to Court of St. James's in Britain from 1885 to 1889.[9] He was praised for his work as minister, which focused on restoring the congenial relationship the two countries had enjoyed prior to the American Civil War, when relations deteriorated because England was on the verge of formally recognizing the Confederate States of America.[10] Phelps' efforts were continued by his immediate successors, Robert Todd Lincoln and Thomas F. Bayard.[10]

In 1893, Phelps was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society, a national research library of pre-20th Century American history and culture which was founded in 1876.[12] Also in 1893, he served as senior counsel for the United States before the international tribunal in Paris which considered the Bering Sea Controversy.[9] In 1895, he was appointed to the commission which worked to end the Venezuelan crisis of 1895, in which Venezuela and England disputed the location of the border between Venezuela and British Guiana.[13]

Phelps was a highly sought after speechmaker and delivered numerous public 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.[1][14][15]

At the urging of Senator George F. Edmunds, President Grover Cleveland intended to appoint Phelps as U.S. Chief Justice in 1888.[16] Phelps was concerned that his tenure as ambassador in London would cause the Democratic Party to lose the support of Irish Americans, who supported a growing movement for Irish independence, and Cleveland concurred.[16] In addition, New England was already represented on the Supreme Court by Horace Gray; in an era when the government was expected to reflect geographic balance, Cleveland decided to appoint someone from the western states.[16] After considering Phelps and several other candidates, Cleveland nominated Melville Fuller.[16]

Death and burialEdit

Phelps died at his home in New Haven, Connecticut on March 9, 1900.[17] A funeral was held at Battell Chapel on the Yale campus; Theodore T. Munger officiated, and university president Timothy Dwight V delivered the eulogy.[18]

A second service took place at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington.[18] Attendees and honorary pall bearers included Edward Curtis Smith, John G. McCullough, Benjamin F. Fifield, and Robert Roberts.[18] Phelps was buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Burlington.[18]


In August 1845, Phelps married Mary S. Haight (1827-1909) of Burlington.[3][19] They were the parents of four children: Edward Haight Phelps (1847–1884), Francis Shurtleff Phelps (1849-1863), Mary Haight Phelps (1855–1911) who married Horatio Loomis, and Charles Pierpont Phelps (1861–1912).[3]



In 1887, Junius Spencer Morgan endowed the Edward J. Phelps professorship at Yale University.[20]

Honorary degreesEdit

In 1870, Middlebury College awarded Phelps the honorary degree of LL.D.[20] In 1881, he received an honorary Master of Arts from Yale University.[20] In 1887, he received honorary LL.D. degrees from the University of Vermont and Harvard University.[20]


"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.[21]

"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.[21]


  1. ^ Some sources indicate that Phelps studied law with Horatio Seymour of Utica, New York. This is incorrect, because Horatio Seymour of Utica did not practice law after attaining admission to the bar.


  1. ^ a b c d   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Phelps, Edward John". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 363.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. V. New York, NY: James T. White & Company. 1894. pp. 411–412 – via Internet Archive.
  3. ^ a b c Shurtleff, Benjamin (1912). Descendants of William Shurtleff of Plymouth and Marshfield, Massachusetts. Vol. 1. Revere, MA: Benjamin Shurtleff. pp. 210, 442 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ a b c Muller, H. N. (November 13, 1977). "Edward J. Phelps: Diplomat, Lawyer, Versifier". Rutland Herald. Rutland, VT. p. 17 – via Newspapers.com.
  5. ^ Rann, William S., ed. (1886). History of Chittenden County, Vermont. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. pp. 493–494 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ "Vote for County Officers". Burlington Free Press. Burlington, VT. September 15, 1851. p. 2 – via Newspapers.com.
  7. ^ "trial for Murder". Woodstock Mercury. Woodstock, VT. April 8, 1852. p. 2 – via Newspapers.com.
  8. ^ Publication Committee (April 1891). "John Jordan Latting". The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. New York, NY: New York Genealogical and Biographical. pp. 102–103 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ a b c d Ullery, Jacob G. (1894). Men of Vermont Illustrated. Brattleboro, VT: Transcript Publishing Company. pp. 308, 310 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ a b c "The Late E. J. Phelps". Harper's Weekly. New York, NY. March 24, 1900. p. 264 – via Newspapers.com.
  11. ^ "Vermont Ready to Vote". The New York Times. New York, NY. September 1, 1880. p. 1 – via TimesMachine.
  12. ^ "Members Directory". American Antiquarian.org. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  13. ^ "The Venezuelan Commission". The American Law Review. Vol. XXX. St. Louis, MO: Review Publishing Co. January–February 1896. p. 113 – via Newspapers.com.
  14. ^ Carson, Hampton Lawrence (1892). The Supreme Court of the United States: Its History. Philadelphia, PA: A. R. Keller Company. p. 686 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ Stillson, Henry Leonard, ed. (1892). The Dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument. Bennington, VT: Banner Book and Job Printing. p. 84 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ a b c d Ely, James W. Jr. (1995). The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller, 1888-1910. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. pp. 16–18. ISBN 978-1-5700-3018-5 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ "Learned Lawyer has Passed Away". The Evening Argus. Montpelier, VT. March 10, 1900. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ a b c d "Death of E. J. Pehlps". Middlebury Register. Middlebury, VT. March 16, 1900. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ Walton, E. P. Jr., ed. (August 28, 1845). "Married: Edward J. Phelps, Mary Haight". Watchman & Journal. Montpelier, VT. p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.
  20. ^ a b c d "Edward J. Phelps, One of Vermont's Most Gifted Sons, Dies at New Haven". Swanton Courier. Swanton, VT. March 15, 1900. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com.
  21. ^ a b "Edward J. Phelps, American jurist and diplomatist".

External linksEdit

Party political offices
Preceded by
W.H.H. Bingham
Democratic nominee for Governor of Vermont
Succeeded by
George W. Eaton