Karl Campbell

Author/Historian

Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers, a recent book by 1978 Warren Wilson graduate Karl Campbell, is receiving much critical acclaim. One reviewer says the book is “a masterful political biography… Campbell persuasively shows how Ervin’s experiences in North Carolina shaped his Senate career as an opponent of civil rights as well as a supporter of civil liberties.” A history and political science major at Warren Wilson, Campbell is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University.

Karl doesn't mince words when talking about how his time at Warren Wilson affected him. “My experience at Warren Wilson codified my liberalism and deepened my commitment to social justice. Warren Wilson was the turning point that led me to be a professor and then write a kind of history that serves social justice.”

“I was at the University of North Carolina doing a Ph.D. and I came across Sam Ervin’s papers. He was the guy at the head of the Watergate hearings in 1973. There were more letters written to that Senate committee than any Congressional hearing up to that time in American history—about 1.5 million letters filled with graphic religious and cultural language. This fascinated me, and pretty soon Ervin became the vehicle for me to study everything from McCarthyism and civil liberties to civil rights and American politics.”

“It’s hard to reconcile that Sam Ervin was a conservative, a southern segregationist and also the liberal hero of Watergate. I think that Ervin was trying to defend the southern way of life that he cherished, and that meant women, African-Americans, mill workers, young people, and others should stay in their place. So I see civil rights battles in the larger context of the movements of change that threatened his way of life. He was very clear…that the threats to civil liberties are always there. He reminded the American people: if we don’t fight for freedoms, we’ll loose them. Ervin was an old country lawyer. He could quote Shakespeare…and was nicknamed “the last of the founding fathers” because he gave reminders of the checks and balances in the Constitution. Ervin was a foil to Nixon.”

When asked about his role as a historian, Dr. Campbell says, “Some historians feel that we should be like scientists and just lay out the facts, but that’s not my position. I believe in interpretation that is relevant to our times. Out of my book come controversial suggestions about American politics, in particular the ongoing threat to civil rights… and ongoing threat to civil liberties… Ervin reminds us of the need for every generation to fight to preserve its own freedom. He would be outraged today. He would be leading the war on terror, but he would be furious over the abuse of executive power and suggest ways to go forward by using the Constitution’s checks and balances. Many people would say we need a Sam Ervin today. People laughed and Ervin won them over.”