Corwin, Edward S.

Corwin, Edward S. (1878-1963) third McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and first chairman of the Deparmtne of Politics, was considered the lleading expositor of the intent and meaning of the Constitution. Born on a farm near Plymouth, Michigan, he first developed his interest in constitutional law at the University of Michigan, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and president of the Class of 1900, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his doctoral work in American history under the guidance of John Bach McMaster in 1905.

It was McMaster who turned Corwin toward Princeton. During a discussion of his ``approaching jobless condition'' at Sunday evening supper with the McMasters in June of 1905 (Corwin later recalled), his mentor suggested that he ``run over to Princeton and apply to Woodrow Wilson for one of those preceptorships they're handing out over there.'' This he did the next day, armed with an ``extraordinarily flowery'' letter of introduction from McMaster. Everything proceeded ``easily and delightfully'' during his interviews with President Wilson and with Professor Winthrop More Daniels, chairman of the Department of History, Politics, and Economics, and several days later he received word that he had been appointed a Princeton preceptor at the salary he had suggested would be necessary ``if I was ever to induce my creditors to lose interest in me.'' That fall Corwin joined Wilson's original group of preceptors and began an association with Princeton that wasto last almost sixty years.

Though he considered Wilson ``the most impressive human being'' he had ever met, he didn't always agree with him, once vigorously challenging some of the president's more conservative views at a departmental meeting, much to the consternation of apparently everyone but Wilson, whose high regard for his outspoken young colleague prompted him to select Corwin to update his book Division and Reunion in 1908. Ten years later, in 1918, Corwin was appointed to the chair first occupied by Wilson, the McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence, which he held until his retirement in 1946. When a separate Department of Politics was formed in 1924, Corwin became its first chairman, serving in that post until 1935.

Corwin's performance as a teacher led seniors repeatedly to vote his undergraduate course, Constitutional Interpretation, ``most difficult,'' and ``most valuable.'' Because of his erect posture and military bearing, he was affectionately known to generations of graduate students as ``The General.'' According to his former student, Alpheus T. Mason, who succeeded him as McCormick Professor, he had the special gift ``of reaching within each person, of discovering something firm and worthwhile, of encouraging him to stand on it,'' and the ability, ``rare among teachers, . . . to judge young men, not by what they are, but by what they may yet become.''

Corwin's influence eventually extended beyond the campus to the federal government, which he served in 1935 as an adviser to the Public Works Administration, and in 1936 and 1937 as a special assistant and consultant to the attorney general on constitutional issues. The independence of mind that had impressed Wilson also characterized Corwin's response to Roosevelt, whom he publicly supported on the plan to enlarge the Supreme Court and publicly opposed three years later when Roosevelt broke tradition and ran for a third term.

Of the more than twenty books Corwin wrote, the best known and most influential are his studies of the Constitution and the presidency. His most successful book was written at the suggestion of his companions in the Snuff Club -- a small cross-departmental group that included Corwin, E. G. Conklin, Luther P. Eisenhart, Christian Gauss, and Duane Reed Stuart, among others -- who, after hearing several papers he read to the club, urged him to write an exposition of the Constitution for the general reader. The Constitution and What It Means Today, first published by Princeton University Press in 1920, continues in print after thirteen revised editions and numerous translations. His later book, The President, Office and Powers (1940), was still considered the ``Bible'' in its field when a newly revised fourth edition appeared in 1958.

A distinctive characteristic of Corwin's literary style, as observed by Alpheus Mason, was his ``penchant for arresting comment and devastating wit'' which ``reflected the man and his mind -- sharp, penetrating, and sometimes astringent.'' The flavor of his style is evident in his comments on judicial review (``American democracy's way of covering its bet'') and the cabinet (``an administrative anachronism'' that should be replaced by a legislative council ``whose daily salt does not come from the Presidential table.'') The same quality marked his conversation. When a colleague asked about a newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, ``He's not a very big man, is he?'' Corwin replied, ``No, but then, it wasn't a very big vacancy.'' Not above enjoying an occasional pun, he was heard to observe -- upon Frank Murphy's appointment to the Court in 1940 -- ``Now we'll have justice tempered with Murphy.''

Corwin's retirement ended neither his service to the government nor his willingness to take issue with it. As editor of the Library of Congress's legislative reference division, he directed a research project that resulted in a massive volume, The Constitution Annotated: Analysis and Interpretation. In 1954 he became chairman of a national committee opposed to the Bricker amendment to restrict the president's treaty-making powers, and during President Eisenhower's illness the following year, he scored the administration for granting too much power to the president's assistant, Sherman Adams.

A president of the American Political Science Association, winner of the American Philosophical Society's Franklin Medal and Phillips Prize, and the recipient of honorary degrees from Michigan and Princeton, he was among the scholars singled out for citation at the Harvard Tercentenary. Other honors came in 1952 when the original Woodrow Wilson Hall was redesignated Edward S. Corwin Hall, and on Constitution Day 1961 when Corwin was cited for his ``brilliant service to both institutions -- the Constitution and Princeton University.'' On that occasion one of his former students, Adlai E. Stevenson, recalled how much his undergraduate days at Princeton had been enriched by Corwin's ``warmth, his wisdom, and his wit.''

Although Corwin never wrote the ``single, monumental'' book he planned, the corpus of his work according to Professor Mason, ``advances the frontiers of every significant aspect of his subject'':

``Generally recognized as the most learned and discriminating of all our modern constitutional authorities, Corwin was a scholar's scholar. Historians, political scientists, and legal practitioners join in proclaiming his preeminence. The law itself reflects his own pointed dictum: `If judges make law, so do commentators.' Corwin is in the great tradition of Cooley and Kent. His contributions are sources of learning and understanding -- hallmarks to emulate and revere.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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