Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry


Edward John Phelps



J.G. McCullough (ed.), Orations & Essays of Edward John Phelps, Diplomat & Statesman (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901)

Edward J. Phelps was born in Middlebury, Vermont. He graduated from Middlebury College at age 18, and went on to study law at Yale University. He was admitted to the bar in 1843, and began the practice of law at Middlebury, but moved to Burlington in 1845.

Phelps served as the second comptroller of the United States Treasury from 1851 to 1853, and then practiced law in New York City until 1857, when he returned to Burlington.

In 1880, Phelps was the Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont.

Phelps was a founder of the American Bar Association (ABA) and served as its president in 1880-1881. After his tenure as president of the ABA, Phelps taught law at Yale University as the Kent Professor of Law until his death. Phelps also lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Vermont, 1881-1883, and on Constitutional Law at Boston University, 1882-1883.

He served as minister to Great Britain from 1885 to 1889, and in 1893 as Senior Counsel for the United States before a Paris tribunal to adjudicate the Bering Sea controversy.

Phelps died at New Haven, Connecticut. [Source: Edward John Phelps, 1 911 Encyclopedia]

Edward John Phelps

Edward John Phelps

Robert E. Healy, Edward John Phelps: Third President of American Bar Association
14 ABA J. 274, 275 (1928)

Leonard M. Daggett, The Yale Law School
1 The Green Bag 239, 248 (1889)

Simeon E. Baldwin, Edward J. Phelps
12 (5) The Green Bag 213-214 (1900)

Harper's Weekly
March 24, 1900

The Late E. J. Phelps

EDWARD JOHN PHELPS, who died on March 9, at New Haven, came of exceptionally vigorous and effective American stock. The founder of the family in this country was William Phelps , colonist, Puritan, and justice of the first
court held in Connecticut, who came from England in 1630, and founded the town of Windsor in Connecticut. The list of his descendants who turned out to
be men of distinction is long and notable. One of them, Edward, was a member of the General Court of Connecticut in 1744-5, and a large landholder. His son John, a Revolutionary soldier, was the father of Samuel S. Phelps, jurist, member of Congress, and United States Senator from Vermont. He in turn was the father of Mr. Phelps who has just died.

Edward J. Phelps , born in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1822, was graduated at Middlebury College in 1840, spent a year at the Yale Law School, continued his law studies with Horatio Seymour, and was admitted to the bar in 1843. In 1845 he moved to Burlington, where he practised his profession. For about three years, until 1854, during President Fillmore's administration, he was the second Comptroller of the Currency. From that time until 1885, though active in public life as an orator and a lawyer, he held no public office, but devoted himself to law, and to services more or less closely allied to that profession. In 1880 he lectured on medical jurisprudence in the University of Vermont. In that year, too, he was president of the American Bar Association, and the unsuccessful candidate of the Vermont Democrats for Governor. In 1881 he became Kent Professor of Law at Yale.

Though a man of proved capacity and scholarship, and of wide and distinguished reputation as a lawyer, when President Cleveland, in 1885, appointed him minister to Great Britain he was not widely known outside of his profession, so that the appointment occasioned surprise. Its wisdom was amply justified. He proved an exceedingly competent, acceptable, and successful representative of the United States, and as a minister was very popular abroad, and sincerely respected by the more discriminating of his own countrymen. He, and his wife as well, during their stay in London, contributed in a very important degree to the work in which Mr. Lowell had preceded him, and which Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Bayard continued, of bringing the British and the American peoples into more cordial and sympathetic relations. It is on the marked success of his career in London that Mr. Phelps 's reputation as a public man chiefly rests. That success was attained by very solid qualities, of learning and character, joined to attractive personal traits, sound judgment as to men and the merits of disputed questions, and social gifts of unusual charm.

When he came back from London, Mr. Phelps resumed work at Yale, where, in 1887, a professorship of law was established for him by Mr. J. S. Morgan.

source: Leonard M. Daggett, The Yale Law School
1 The Green Bag 239 (1889)]

He continued to perform its duties up to the time of the illness which ended his life, finding leisure also for various important writings on constitutional and governmental subjects, and for the expression of his views from time to time on pressing matters of public policy. In 1893 he was appointed senior counsel of the United States in the Bering Sea controversy, and made the closing argument for the American side before the Court of Arbitration in Paris. Later, as a distinguished American, his good offices were engaged to assist the settlement of the dispute which arose with Lord Dunraven over his attempt to capture the America's cup.

Mr. Phelps lived part of the year at New Haven, but never gave up his residence in Vermont. He strongly disliked wars, condemned Mr. Cleveland's Venezuela message, and opposed the war with Spain and the expansion policy which followed it. To the free-silver mania and the candidacy of Bryan he was also unalterably opposed from the start, so that the closing years of his life found him one of the considerable number of Democrats who were strongly disaffected to all existing political conditions.

Edward John Phelps

[Between 1844 and 1860]
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a 1953 talk to law students at the University of Virginia (which appears in a 1953 issue of the Virginia Law Review) recounts how Edward J. Phelps was expected to be named as a Justice of the Supreme Court:

When Chief Justice Waite died, if a poll had been taken among lawyers and judges to determine the choice of a successor, I don't suppose a single vote would have been cast for Melville W. Fuller, certainly outside Chicago. Indeed, he was not Grover Cleveland's first choice. It was widely believed that a man named Edward J. Phelps of Vermont would become Chief Justice. He was a leader of the bar. He was an eminent man. He'd been Minister to Great Britain. But 1888 was a time when the so-called Irish vote mattered more than it has mattered in more recent years. Edward J. Phelps, as has been true of other ministers and ambassadors to Great Britain, made some speeches in England in which he said some nice things, believe it or not, about the British people. Patrick Collins, a Democratic leader, the then mayor of Boston, felt that that wouldn't do. A man who says nice things about the British can't possibly make a good Chief Justice of the United States. And since Patrick Collins was a powerful influence in the Democratic party, he advised President Cleveland that if he sent Phelp's name to the Senate, the chances of confirmation might (not be very bright. Phelps's name was not sent to the Senate.

[Felix Frankfurter, From Fuller to Stone—Chief Justices I Have Known, Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook, 1980] [online text]

Harper's Weekly
April 4, 1885 (p. 222)


The successor of Mr. James Russell Lowell at the court of St. James is Mr. Edward J. Phelps, of Burlington, Vermont, a lawyer in the front rank, and a son of a Senator. Though several times the Democratic candidate for the Governorship of his State, Mr. Phelps never held public office until his confirmation as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Great Britain. His friends speak of his appointment as eminently fit; one of them, ex-Governor Holbrook , of Vermont, a stanch Republican, said to a reporter: "I think it is as good a Democratic appointment as could have been made in this country. He is a courteous gentleman of unquestioned ability and integrity, and a pleasing orator." Mr. Phelps bears a striking personal resemblance to Mr. William H. Vanderbilt. His manner is dignified and urbane,
his conversation abounds in wit, and his aptitude for social duties at the court of St. James is perfect. His lectures for the last two years before the law students of Yale College have been received with unusual attention, and no instructor connected with the institution is more popular or respected. He will do much toward preserving the fine traditions associated with the scholarly and cultivated Lowell.


"The Lay of the Lost Traveler"

Edward J. Phelps, "The Ballad of Essex Junction," in Paul S. Gillies, The Law and Vermont Literature: A Drive-By, 22 Vt. B.J. & L. Dig. 11, 12 (August, 1996)


J.G. McCullough (ed.), Orations & Essays of Edward John Phelps, Diplomat & Statesman (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1901) [online text]


E. J. Phelps, The Law of the Land: Address Delivered Before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution at the Opening of Its Session November 1886 (London: Harris & Sons, 1887) [online text]

_________, A Sketch of the Life and Character of Charles Lindsay: Read Before the Vermont Historical Society (Albany, New York: J. Munsell, 1866) [online text]

_________, Address on the Life and Public Serrvices of the Hon. Samuel Prentiss: Delivered Before the Vermont Historical Society, at Montpelier, Oct. 26, 1882 (Montpelier: Watchman & Journal Press, 1883) [online text]

_________, International Relations: Address Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University June 29, 1889 (Burlington: Free Press Association, 1889) [online text]


Matthew H. Buckham, The Life and Public Services of Edward John Phelps; an address delivered before the Vermont Historical Society, Proceedings (Burlington, Vermont, 1901)

Francis Parsons, Six Men of Yale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939)