About Archibald Cox

Archibald Cox was a lawyer, professor, and public servant known for his integrity and his commitment to the greater good. He brought these traits to bear in well-reasoned legal battles for labor rights, civil rights, and government accountability.

Cox was born in 1912 in Plainfield, New Jersey, into a family of lawyers. Raised with a strong sense of public service, Cox knew early on he, too, would go into law. He was educated in private schools and graduated from Harvard College in 1932 and at the top of his class from Harvard Law School in 1937; he married Phyllis Ames that same year. After graduation, one of his professors, Felix Frankfurter, arranged for Cox to clerk for Judge (Billings) Learned Hand, who deeply impressed Cox with his sense of responsibility to the rule of law. Cox went on to work for the top Boston firm Ropes, Gray, Best, Coolidge & Rugg before entering public service during World War II.

Appointed first to the National Defense Board, Cox used his Ropes, Gray experience in labor law to help settle labor disputes that could affect defense production. Later in the war, Cox worked in the solicitor general's office under Charles Fahy, where he argued his first case in the Supreme Court, and then briefly in the State Department under Dean Acheson.

In 1946, he joined the faculty at Harvard Law School, where he would teach for the next three decades, aside from the years he was in Washington, D.C., for government appointments. Cox taught courses in labor law, constitutional law, and torts. Highly respected by students, the administration, and law enforcement officials, Cox was largely responsible for maintaining order on campus during clashes between students and police in 1969. He played a similar role at Columbia University as chair of a committee to explore political disturbances on campus in 1968.

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Letter from Lyndon Johnson to Archibald Cox accepting Cox's resignation as solicitor general (July 13, 1965).
Courtesy of Sarah Cox

Cox's reputation for a level head and an even hand grew from his tenure as solicitor general during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His first meetings with Kennedy took place in the late 1950s when he advised the then senator on labor legislation. During Kennedy's presidential campaign, Cox coordinated the involvement of academic specialists who assisted the candidate's speechwriters. From 1961 to 1965, Cox served as solicitor general, arguing the federal government's cases before the Supreme Court. Cox's successes included wins for reapportionment in the South (Baker v. Carr), safe public accommodations throughout the country for African Americans (Heart of Atlanta), and campaign-finance reform (Buckley v. Valeo). Cox contributed greatly to the success of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and when that act was found to be lacking he was a driving force behind the writing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both an idealist and a realist, he was skilled at carefully constructing a strong legal argument that was most likely to win favor with cautious judges— for instance, he argued some civil-rights cases using commerce law instead of civil-rights law. Cox's brilliant oral arguments had heart; he often incorporated stories of real people whose lives were affected by the law. Members of the court respected Cox's view that he owed a joint duty to the court and the executive branch and generally refused to advocate political positions that would conflict with legal doctrine.

In 1965, Cox returned to Harvard, only to be called back to Washington in May 1973, when he was appointed special prosecutor for Watergate. That summer, it came out that President Nixon had secret tapes of every conversation he had had in the Oval Office. Cox, along with the judge and Senate committee, pressed hard for Nixon to turn over the tapes, whole and uncensored. Fed up with Cox's insistence on unrestricted access, Nixon ordered Cox's dismissal on October 20, 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy attorney general resigned rather than comply. When the Department of Justice's third man, Solicitor General Robert Bork, fired Cox, the resulting outcry from press and politicians brought not only unrestricted access to the secret tapes, but also eventually helped bring down a dishonest president.

Cox later stated that "one of the important lessons of Watergate was that unless the government trusts the people and conducts itself in an honorable fashion, then the people won't trust the government." He returned to Harvard, where he taught until 1984. From 1980 to 1992, he helmed Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit citizens' lobbying group that works for an open, ethical government. He led the call for a government "effective in solving problems in ways that . . . enable each citizen to participate and to feel responsibility for the common good."

During his years at Common Cause, he wrote Freedom of Expression (1981) and The Court and the Constitution (1987); during his lifetime he authored numerous books on subjects such as labor and civil rights, as well several law textbooks. After stepping down from Common Cause, he continued to serve on boards and take an active interest in the legal world until his death in May 2004, at age 92. He was survived by his wife Phyllis, daughters Sarah and Phyllis, son Archibald Jr. and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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