Francis Beverley Biddle (May 19, 1886 – October 4, 1968) was an American lawyer and judge who was Attorney General of the United States during World War II and who served as the primary American judge during the postwar Nuremberg trials.
Early life and education
Biddle was born in Paris, France, while his family was living abroad. He was one of four sons of Frances Brown (née Robinson) and Algernon Sydney Biddle, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania of the Biddle family. The four sons were:
- Moncure Biddle (1882-1956), a banker
- George Biddle (1885–1973), muralist artist
- Francis Beverley Biddle
- Sydney Geoffrey Biddle (1889-1954), a psychologist
He was also a great-great-grandson of Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) the seventh Governor of Virginia, the second Secretary of State, and the first United States Attorney General, and a half second cousin four times removed of the 4th President of the United States James Madison. He graduated from Groton School, where he participated in boxing. He earned degrees from Harvard University in 1909 (A.B.) and 1911 (law degree).
He first worked as a private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. from 1911 to 1912. He spent the next 27 years practicing law in Philadelphia. In 1912, he supported the presidential candidacy of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's renegade Bull Moose Party. He was also served briefly during World War I as a private the United States Army from October 23 to November 30, 1918. He served as special assistant to the U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1922 to 1926.
Beginning in the 1930s, Biddle was appointed to a number of important governmental roles. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him to be chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. On February 9, 1939, Roosevelt nominated Biddle to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, to a seat vacated by Joseph Buffington. Biddle was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 28, 1939, and received his commission on March 4, 1939. He only served one year before resigning on January 22, 1940, to become the United States Solicitor General. This also turned out to be a short-lived position when Roosevelt nominated him to the position of Attorney General of the United States in 1941. During this time he was also chief counsel to the Special Congressional Committee to Investigate the Tennessee Valley Authority, from 1938 to 1939, and director of Immigration and Naturalization Service at the U.S. Department of Justice in 1940.
During World War II, Biddle used the Espionage Act of 1917 to attempt to shut down 'vermin publications'. This included Father Coughlin's publication entitled Social Justice. Biddle has also been "credited" with the creation of what became known later as the "Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations"; in fact, this list was originally known as "The Biddle List". In the Biddle List, eleven front groups originating in the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were singled out as being "subversive" and under the control of the Soviet Union. Unlike the later, more infamous Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations, which contained both left and right-wing organizations, the Biddle List contained only left-wing organizations as well as civil rights organizations tied to the CPUSA.
Biddle List (1941)
- American League Against War and Fascism
- American League for Peace and Democracy
- American Peace Mobilization
- American Youth Congress
- League of American Writers
- National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners
- National Committee for Peoples Rights
- National Federation for Constitutional Liberties
- National Negro Congress
- Washington Cooperative Bookshop
- Washington Committee for Democratic Action
In 1942, Biddle was involved in a case where eight captured Nazi agents were tried by a military tribunal appointed by President Roosevelt for espionage and planning sabotage in the United States as part of Operation Pastorius. Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Royall challenged Roosevelt's decision to prosecute the Germans in military tribunals, citing Ex parte Milligan (1866), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not establish military tribunals to try civilians in areas where civilian courts were functioning, even during wartimes. Biddle responded that the Germans were not entitled to have access to civilian courts due to their status as unlawful combatants. This decision was upheld in Ex parte Quirin (1942) where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military commission created to try the Germans was lawful. On August 3, 1942, all eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. Five days later, six of the eight were executed in the electric chair on the third floor of the District of Columbia jail. The other two were given prison terms as they willingly turned over their comrades to the FBI. In 1948, both men were released from prison and returned to Germany.
Although Biddle opposed Japanese-American internment during the war, he succumbed to "political expediency" and eventually supported the policy, and was haunted by it for years afterward. However, Biddle strengthened his department's efforts on behalf of African American civil rights by instructing United States attorneys to direct their prosecutions against forced labor in the South away from the usual practice of charging "peonage," which required them to find an element of debt, and toward bringing charges of "slavery" and "involuntary servitude" against employers and local officials.
At President Harry S. Truman's request, he resigned after Roosevelt's death. Shortly after, Truman appointed Biddle as a judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Biddle's successor, Tom Clark told the story that Biddle, who wore spats, was the first government official whose resignation Truman sought, and that it was quite a difficult task. Biddle was amused by Truman's stammering, but after it was over, he threw his arm around the President and said, "See, Harry, now that wasn't so hard."
In 1947, he was nominated by Truman as the American representative on the United Nations Economic and Social Council. However, after the Republican Party refused to act on the nomination, Biddle asked Truman to withdraw his name.
In 1950, he was named as chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, a position he held for three years; then one decade later, wrote two volumes of memoirs: A Casual Past in 1961 and In Brief Authority the following year. His final position came as chairman of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Commission, which he resigned in 1965.
On April 27, 1918, Biddle was married to the poet Katherine Garrison Chapin. They had two sons:
- Edmund Randolph Biddle (-2001), who married Frances M. Disner
- Garrison Chapin Biddle
He died on October 4, 1968 of a heart attack at his summer home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, at the age of 82. Biddle was buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Biddle's writing skills had long been in evidence prior to the release of his memoirs. In 1927, he wrote a novel about Philadelphia society, "The Llanfear Pattern." In 1942, he took advantage of his close association with Oliver Wendell Holmes 30 years earlier with a biography of the jurist, Mr. Justice Holmes, then wrote Democratic Thinking and the War two years later. His 1949 book, The World's Best Hope looked at the United States' role in the post-war era. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.
In popular culture
Biddle was the subject of the 2004 play Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass, who had served as Biddle's personal secretary from 1967 to 1968.