Julien Davies Cornell: Gentle Quaker, Determined Litigator

In December 1994, the New York Times published an obituary titled "Julien Cornell, 83, The Defense Lawyer in Ezra Pound Case." Julien Davies Cornell, actually age 84, a member of Cornwall (N.Y.) Meeting, had died of cancer earlier that month in Goshen, New York. While it is true that Julien will be remembered widely for defending the notorious poet who was accused of treason during World War II, his legal efforts on behalf of conscientious objectors deserves far greater recognition. He remains one of the unsung heroes of the U.S. peace movement.

During World War II conscientious objectors represented a tiny proportion of the draft-age U.S. population. In their book, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947, Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip Jacob note that less than two-tenths of one percent of the eligible age group requested a CO exemption. A majority of the 72,000 objectors were never imprisoned. Some 25,000 entered the military in noncombatant service, and another 11,950 were assigned to alternative service in Civilian Public Service (CPS) work camps. An estimated 20,000 potential objectors did not receive official conscientious objector status. Some saw their claims rejected by a local draft board and were forced to enter the armed forces. Others were successful in obtaining an exemption due to their jobs or family dependents. Meanwhile, 6,086 conscientious objectors were imprisoned for violating the Selective Service Act.

Many individuals in the public sector applauded the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. They saw it as an advance over the World War I law, which had limited conscientious objection to members of the Historic Peace Churches. But for many pacifists and opponents of war the federal government’s draft law was considered a direct assault upon civil liberties. Despite the new law’s expanded classification to include all who were opposed to participating in war because of religious training and belief, little was done to address the issue of opposition to war on nonreligious grounds. The law did not mirror the British National Service Act of 1939, which allowed the absolutist objector exemption from state service.

For Julien Cornell, defending the civil liberties of conscientious objectors from the dictates of the state was paramount for his faith and his profession. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 17, 1910, to Edward H. Cornell, a successful Wall Street attorney, and Ester Haviland Cornell, a descendant of the French family who were the makers of the famous Haviland China. Both were devout Quakers. Julien, along with his brother and two sisters, attended the Brooklyn Friends School on Schermerhorn Street. Attending meeting was an important part of his early childhood. "On Sundays," he recounted, "we walked a mile to the meetinghouse adjacent to the school where we attended Sunday school. . . . An hour of silent meditation [was] interspersed with brief messages . . . [and] some of the speakers’ messages appealed to us, particularly those of Anna Curtis." Even joyful summer vacations in Central Valley, New York, where his father’s family had settled during the Revolutionary War, witnessed Julien accompanying his parents to Cornwall Meeting or Smith’s Clove Preparative Meeting at Highland Mills.

At age 12, Cornell left Brooklyn and began attending a small boarding school at Lake Mohonk, New York. The idyllic resort and school were run by the Quaker Smiley family, which sponsored the noted Lake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration from the 1890s to 1916. Julien graduated at the top of his class after studying liberal arts and sciences. He attended Swarthmore College, where his mother, an alumna of the Class of 1898, was on the board of managers.

He entered Swarthmore at age 16 and graduated with honors in 1930. It was at this Quaker college that Julien came to appreciate fully the importance of freedom of conscience. Years later he recalled, "Swarthmore gave me two things associated with its Quaker heritage which I cherish: a healthy skepticism for textbooks and authorities, and reverence for the dignity and worth of individual human beings."

Just as important, Swarthmore reinforced his belief in nonviolence. During his senior year, Julien Cornell became interested in a movement started at Oxford in Great Britain, where undergraduates took an oath to refuse military service to "king and country." Reading books like Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion and Sir Arthur Ponsonby’s Now Is the Time convinced Julien of the folly of war. Influenced by the postwar disillusionment sweeping the United States in the 1920s and the expectations raised by the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war "as an instrument of national policy," Cornell and his classmates Haines Turner and Harold Wagner decided to launch their own peace movement, going so far as to prepare a declaration encouraging college students throughout the country to follow the example of the Oxford Peace Pledge. Their movement never got going, but it convinced Cornell that "my study of the problem of war made me a confirmed pacifist, which I have since remained."

Although a pacifist, Cornell did not become involved in organized peace efforts. Instead, he attended and graduated from Yale Law School in 1933. As expected, he accepted a position in his father’s law firm of Davies, Averbach, and Cornell. But the emphasis on money at the expense of the client and with no priority for service to the community disillusioned him. In 1940, he found his true calling when Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth Bill, better known as the Selective Service and Training Act. His deep passion for peace and respect for conscience were challenged with that law’s enactment.

As early as January 1941 Cornell began offering his legal services "without compensation" to Friends confronted with the draft act. "I am a member of the Cornwall New York Monthly Meeting and am practicing law in New York City," he wrote to the clerk of Purchase Meeting in White Plains, New York. "I should like to offer my services as attorney on behalf of any members of your meeting who stand in need of advice or legal representation regarding the provisions of the Selective and Training Service Act." In 1942, while employed by the firm of Earle and Reilly in Manhattan, Cornell was receiving numerous inquiries from Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Evan Thomas of the War Resisters League, and A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation requesting that he "represent . . . pacifists who had refused to register for the draft under the conviction that the law was morally and legally wrong as well as unconstitutional."

By 1942, Cornell was in the thick of things. Serving on the National Commission on Conscientious Objectors of the ACLU and the Metropolitan Board for Conscientious Objectors, Julien handled hundreds of cases involving U.S. citizens sent to prison for refusing to register for the draft, be inducted, or work in CPS camps. "Thus far," he wrote to Muste, "I have appeared in court on behalf of 37 conscientious objectors, each case requiring from one to three conferences with an Assistant United States Attorney, and two or three, sometimes as many as five or six, appearances in court, not to mention telephone conferences, and trips to the prison." The many cases he personally handled or advised with other attorneys were done with meticulous care and respect for individual conscience.

Although Cornell was quiet and reserved by nature, he was a determined litigator. He succeeded in getting the Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to establish the principle that "sincere conscientious scruples against war as contrasted with mere social or political beliefs, are religious in the broad sense of the term; and protected by statute." In United States ex rel. Phillips v. Downer, Julien skillfully managed to convince the appellate court that Randolph Phillips’ conscientious scruples were genuine and based upon religious training and belief. There were times when judges went out of their way to punish conscientious objectors in spite of Cornell’s efforts. He was also one of the lead counsels in perhaps the most celebrated case during the war—the treatment accorded to two imprisoned conscientious objectors, Stanley Murphy and Louis Taylor. Murphy and Taylor had led an 82-day hunger strike at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. They were subsequently sent to a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where they were placed naked in "strip cells" and beaten by guards. Cornell contacted U.S. attorneys and, with other pacifist groups, brought this matter to the attention of the press, resulting in federal investigations of the prison system and eventual reforms on behalf of war resisters.

Julien’s determination to defend the civil liberties of objectors also took him to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a case backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and supported by Harvard law professor and authority on free speech Zechariah Chafee, Cornell argued that Clyde W. Summers should not be denied admission to the bar in his home state of Illinois because he was a pacifist. Cornell argued that Summers’ convictions were a testament to his character and he should be deemed fit to practice law. He launched a spirited defense of Summers’ rights, but lost the argument before the high court, 5 to 4.

However, he was far more successful in the case of James Louis Girouard, a Canadian and Seventh-Day Adventist. Girouard’s application for citizenship had been denied because his religion required that he not bear arms. On behalf of the ACLU, Cornell wrote a successful amicus curiae brief leading to the granting of citizenship to Girouard.

Apart from appearing in court, writing briefs, and advising clients, Cornell made his views known in two widely read books: The Conscientious Objector and the Law and Conscience and the State. In both works, published in 1943 and 1944 respectively, Cornell examined the provisions of the 1940 draft law and its application. In these books he argued that the U.S. government should adopt the British model with regard to exemption from service and that "Service to one’s country when voluntary is a noble thing, when compulsory is degrading, and when in violation of conscience is immoral." According to Julien, "If the nation can prosecute a war and at the same time give freedom to those who have conscientious objections to war, then our civilization is healthy and flourishing." Instead, he noted, the conscientious objector was "still not accorded in full measure the recognition which his legal and moral position deserves [nor] does [he] receive fair treatment at the hands of draft boards and public officials." The legal arguments articulated in these two books became the basis for many of the successful draft appeals during the Vietnam War.

Cornell’s highest point of notoriety came in 1946 with his defense of the famed poet and writer Ezra Pound. Pound had been indicted on charges of treason stemming from radio broadcasts he gave in Rome in 1943. Those broadcasts were highly critical of President Roosevelt and smacked of anti-Semitism. Although Army psychiatrists had declared Pound fit to stand trial, Cornell produced his own battery of psychiatrists who refuted the Army experts. During the February 1946 trial, Cornell prevailed in having Pound committed to a mental hospital thus saving him from a possible death sentence.

Julien’s defense of Pound was only a distraction from his ongoing postwar commitment to world peace and service to others. He took a brief hiatus from the practice of law and performed volunteer work in Europe for American Friends Service Committee. In 1949-1950 he organized a series of summer conferences for young students interested in world peace. During his stay in Europe he visited Quaker centers in London, Rome, Berlin, and Vienna, where he gave talks on the United Nations and Cold War tensions. He insisted that lasting world peace cannot be based on the myth of military security and the fetish of national sovereignty.

In July 1950, he and his family settled in Central Valley where he established his own law practice. A devoted family man who loved his wife and children, Julien returned once more to the use of law as an instrument to help others. He served his community as a board of education attorney, town attorney, and private practitioner in Orange County. Attention to matters involving peace and civil liberties remained close to his heart. In 1956 this led him to come to the aid of the U.S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which was founded by Quakers and other religious pacifists in Garden City, New York, in 1915. It was moving from its Broadway office in Manhattan to Shadowcliff Mansion in Nyack, New York, and local residents were distrustful of this pacifist group. Harboring Cold War fears, they persuaded the town and village to put the FOR property on the tax rolls. On behalf of the Fellowship, Cornell entered into the legal fray. Through his legal acumen and knowledge of the law on civil and religious liberties, he won tax-exempt status for the FOR.

For Cornell’s work of historical importance during the trying times of World War II and after, his Quaker beliefs bolstered his efforts. He used his legal training to defend the right of conscience against involuntary state servitude. Many, like pacifist lawyer Harrop Freeman, considered him the foremost defender of conscientious objectors in the United States during this period. Julien understood that the practice of law was a matter of finding the truth rather than proving the rightness of one’s attitude.

Despite criticisms from patriotic justices and government officials, Cornell carried out his assignment with aplomb and unswerving devotion. "I really think you did a wonderful job in obtaining certiorari [permission to argue before the Supreme Court] in such a novel situation," Chafee wrote to Cornell in regard to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Summers case, "and that the fact that you persuaded four judges is a tribute to [your] skill."

Just prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, Cornell warned Friends in an unpublished paper, "Pacifism in the Society of Friends," found in his papers in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, that "These things which we are about to do are so immoral that we cannot condone or approve them, much less take part in them, without surrendering our Quaker principles. . . . We cannot fight a war to end war. We thought so once. But war breeds war, and if we go into this war we will by so doing help to breed another. Only by rejecting war can we create the spirit in which the dove of peace can breathe."

He was a peace hero in his own court. Very few Friends are aware of his legal contributions to the peace movement in wartime and how his arguments would be used by a future generation of litigators during the Vietnam War. This should be more widely known. If the law is the foundation for society’s safekeeping, then peace is the bedrock for its existence. The legacy of Julien Davies Cornell lives on at Swarthmore’s McCabe Library, home of the Friends Historical Library, which he and his family made possible through generous donations to the college.

Charles F. Howlett

Charles F. Howlett is assistant professor of graduate education at Malloy College on Long Island, N.Y. He is the editor of the book The American Peace Movement, 1890-2000: The Emergence of a New Scholarly Discipline.