Biddle, Francis

views updated


Francis Biddle (May 9, 1886–October 4, 1968) was a leading New Deal lawyer and labor reform proponent who served during the 1940s as attorney general under Franklin Roosevelt. Biddle was descended from the prominent Randolph family, with roots in seventeenth-century Virginia. He was educated at Groton School and Harvard University in Massachusetts. Like Roosevelt, Biddle was the model of a distinctive New Deal type: the son of privilege turned social reformer. Biddle's transformation was especially sharp. As a prominent Philadelphia attorney in the 1910s and 1920s, he was a registered Republican and counsel to various corporate clients. But the onset of the Depression led to his disillusionment with his earlier political commitments. Biddle was particularly frustrated with President Herbert Hoover's failure to support the cause of workers' rights, an issue to which Biddle would become increasingly committed in the coming years.

Biddle's support for Roosevelt and labor advocacy led to his 1934 appointment as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Working with tools ill-suited to the task, Biddle nonetheless did an admirable job of employing the limited powers of the NLRB to establish critical federal labor law precedents. Although his tenure on the committee was brief (he served for less than a year), Biddle was a consistent and forceful defender of the important role served by the Board. His testimony before Congress influenced the shaping of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which included a strengthened NLRB.

After leaving the NLRB, Biddle returned to private practice in Philadelphia, but by 1938 he was back in Washington, serving as chief counsel in congressional hearings investigating accusations of mismanagement of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The hearings cleared the TVA of wrongdoing, an accomplishment Biddle would later recall as one of his most satisfying of the New Deal era. Biddle went on to serve on the Federal Reserve Bank for a brief period before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia. But almost as soon as he settled into his new job, he was again moving back to Washington, this time to serve as the nation's solicitor general. In 1941 he became U.S. attorney general, a job he held until 1945. As attorney general, Biddle continued to support New Deal reform, although he is most remembered for his role in coordinating the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following his service in the Department of Justice, Biddle went on to serve on the international war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg and to author numerous books.



Biddle, Francis. A Casual Past. 1961.

Biddle, Francis. In Brief Authority. 1962.

Christopher W. Schmidt