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Thomas Irwin Emerson papers

Call Number: MS 1622

Scope and Contents

The papers document the career of Thomas Emerson, primarily during his time as a professor at the Yale Law School from 1946 to 1976. Correspondence runs throughout the papers but is concentrated in Series I, residing in both the general correspondence section and the subject files. The subject files consist largely of collected material and detail Emerson's involvement in organizations. His activities on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, and the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women are among those most thoroughly documented. The subject files also contain a limited amount of material from the period Emerson spent working for the federal government from 1933 to 1946. The papers include copies of the files the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept on Emerson and large amounts of Emerson's writings and course materials. While his legal career is represented in the papers, legal documentation is not a large part of the collection. Records of Griswold v. Connecticut are present, but not extensive. There is no documentation of Powell v. Alabama or the other "Scottsboro Boys" cases in these papers.

The papers provide a comprehensive view of many of the debates over civil liberties in the United States during the twentieth century. Material within the papers details American society's ongoing struggle to define the boundaries between an individual's rights and government sovereignty in the political, social, and intellectual arenas. Emerson's involvement in the Progressive Party, support of the Equal Rights Amendment, and work on Sweezy v. New Hampshire are well-documented civil liberties issues within the papers, but many others are present in the subject files in Series I. On a more personal note, the Federal Bureau of Investigation files in Series II show how the FBI conducted an investigation of a suspected member of the Communist Party, the scope of the investigation, and the effect it had on the person being investigated. Emerson was one of many people to be investigated in this way by government agencies after World War II.

The Thomas Irwin Emerson Papers were processed as part of a collaborative effort between Manuscripts and Archives and the Yale Law School to document the careers and accomplishments of law school faculty and alumni.


  • 1933-1988
  • Majority of material found within 1946 - 1976


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by Thomas Irwin Emerson has been transferred to Yale University. These materials may be used for non-commercial purposes without seeking permission from Yale University as the copyright holder. For other uses of these materials, please contact

Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Estate of Thomas Irwin Emerson, 1991-1992.


Arranged in four series: I. Correspondence and Subject Files, 1933-1988. II. Personal Papers, 1937-1987. III. Writings, 1947-1987. IV. Course Materials, 1946-1983.


42 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of correspondence, writings, course material, legal documents, and printed material that document Thomas Emerson's career as a lawyer and law professor. The papers emphasize Emerson's teaching, writing, and organizational activities during his career at the Yale Law School from 1946 to 1976.

Biographical / Historical

Thomas Irwin Emerson was born on July 12, 1907, in Passaic, New Jersey. He graduated from Yale College in 1928 and from the Yale Law School in 1931. Upon graduation from law school, Emerson worked for two years at the New York law firm of Engelhard, Pollak, Pitcher and Stern. In 1931, he served on the defense team in Powell v. Alabama, the suit that successfully overturned the convictions of the "Scottsboro Boys" and is considered a groundbreaking case in establishing a defendant's right to counsel. Emerson left the law firm in 1933 and went to work for the federal government. He spent thirteen years in Washington, D.C., working for seven government agencies during the period of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. He began as assistant counsel for the National Recovery Administration. From there, he went to the National Labor Relations Board, the Social Security Board, the National Labor Relations Board again, the Department of Justice, and the Office of Price Administration. He completed his time as a government employee with assignments as general counsel for the Office of Economic Stabilization and the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. His memoirs from this period were published in 1991 in the book Young Lawyer for the New Deal: An Insider's Memoir of the Roosevelt Years. In 1946, Emerson joined the Yale Law School faculty. He taught at the law school until 1976. He was a popular professor among students and taught such courses as Political and Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, and Administrative Process. His publications included over one hundred articles and briefs as well as two highly regarded scholarly works, Political and Civil Rights in the United States with David Haber, first published in 1952, and The System of Freedom of Expression published in 1970.

Throughout his life, Emerson was a passionate civil libertarian. His organizational activity demonstrated the importance he assigned to the protection of civil liberties. He was active in both the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Haven Civil Liberties Council, later called the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. He served as an advisor to the Civil Liberties Educational Foundation and as a member of the national council for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. He fought against repressive government legislation in the National Committee to Abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation and opposed the Federal Loyalty Program. Emerson also defended civil liberties in the courtroom. In 1957, he argued and won a case before the Supreme Court, Sweezy v. New Hampshire, that reinforced the right to academic freedom. In the 1960s, he contributed to the effort to secure the release of Morton Sobell, convicted in 1951 of espionage and detained in prison past the duration of his sentence. In recognition of his defense of civil liberties, he received the inaugural American Civil Liberties Union's Medal of Liberty in 1984.

In 1965, Emerson argued before the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut that the Connecticut state law forbidding the use of contraceptives was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor and, as part of the decision, recognized a right to privacy under the Constitution for the first time. Legal scholars consider the case the precursor to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He further demonstrated his commitment to women's rights as a member of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and the Connecticut Women's Educational and Legal Fund and by campaigning for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

Emerson's organizational affiliations and defense of civil liberties during the reactionary period in the United States after World War II resulted in government surveillance. Copies of records Emerson obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request document the Federal Bureau of Investigation's observance of him between 1941 and 1977. The investigation began as series of background checks for Emerson's various government positions and intensified as a result of his involvement in the National Lawyers Guild, an organization attacked as a Communist front during the 1940s, and his co-authoring of an article in 1948 criticizing the Federal Loyalty Program. The FBI's efforts to connect him with the Communist Party included trying to place him with a Communist cell in Seattle, Washington, a city Emerson had never visited. Emerson steadfastly denied Communist Party membership and the FBI failed in its attempts to prove otherwise.

Thomas Emerson and his first wife, Bertha Paret, had three children: Joan, Robert and Luther. Later, Emerson married Ruth Calvin. Thomas Emerson died June 19, 1991, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Guide to the Thomas Irwin Emerson Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Mike Strom
October 2003
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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