Samuel Field Phillips was born in New York City on February 18, 1829, to English mathematician, James Phillips, and Judith Vermeule Phillips, of New Jersey. At the age of two he and his family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he spent the majority of his life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina (UNC) with highest honors in 1841, earning a master’s degree three years later. Phillips began his own law practice in North Carolina and joined the UNC law department as a tutor before embarking on a career in politics, beginning with his election to a Whig seat in the North Carolina General Assemblies of 1852 and 1854. Phillips served on the North Carolina state Court of Claims in 1861, and as state auditor from 1862-1864. In 1864, he was re-elected to the North Carolina state legislature and served as Speaker of the House in 1866. He fought for the expansion of legal rights for African-Americans, triumphing in granting freedmen the right to testify in cases in which they were parties. Phillips took a brief self-imposed hiatus from politics from 1866-1870 to practice law in Raleigh.
In 1871, Phillips served a term on the North Carolina House of Representatives. In December 1872, Phillips was appointment by President Grant as the second solicitor general. He served in this position from November 1872 to May 1885. During Phillips’s twelve and one-half years as solicitor general, he served under four presidents: Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur. Phillips argued the constitutionality of the 1871 Enforcement Act and advocated upholding a conviction of several Ku Klux Klan members who assaulted a black man for voting in a congressional election. Citing Article I of the U.S. Constitution, he set a precedent used in the 1960's to validate the expansion of federal control over the election process.
After serving as SG, he went on to become a member of the U.S. and Venezuela Mixed Claims Commissions of 1888 and 1891. Phillips was part of team who argued the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, using both the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 13th and 14th Amendments as a defense. As part of the legal counsel representing Homer Plessy in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, he argued that the “separate-but-equal” doctrine was nothing less than a disparagement of African-Americans on the basis of color, much like slavery. Phillips returned to private law practice in Washington, D.C. until 1901.
Phillips first wife, Frances Lucas Stone, with whom he had four daughters and one son, had passed away in the 1870's, upon which he married Sarah Phillips. On November 18, 1903, Samuel Phillips died in Washington, D.C., although his body now rests in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.