Only one man in history served as United States Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Supreme Court Justice. Yet he never attended college or earned a law degree. In the first biography about Jackson published in fifty years, Jarrow details his journey from rural New York to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inner circle, the Supreme Court bench, and the Nuremberg Trial.
The Life of Robert H. Jackson
Young Robert Jackson.
(Robert H. Jackson Center)
Robert Houghwout Jackson was born on a farm in Spring Creek, Pennsylvania, on February 13, 1892. He spent most of his youth in the small town of Frewsburg, New York, where he graduated from high school in 1909 as valedictorian. Eager to take subjects that his small school had not offered, Jackson studied an extra year at the larger high school in nearby Jamestown, New York.
Bob Jackson as a teen.
(Robert H. Jackson Center)
By the time Jackson was fourteen years old, he had already become a popular speaker at local gatherings in his hometown area. In high school, he became a top-notch debater. His early speeches and essays reveal his skill with words. As an adult, Jackson was known for his clear use of language in oration and writing.
“A correct and full understanding of the written word is the threshold of knowledge, and ability to write simple direct English is the beginning of power.” ~Robert H. Jackson
Jackson, age 18 [left front] with his
trophy-winning high school debate team.
(The Red and Green, 1910 yearbook, Jamestown, NY)
Jackson’s ambition was to become a lawyer. After graduating from Jamestown High School at age 18, he began an apprenticeship in his cousin’s Jamestown law office. The next year he borrowed tuition money from his uncle in order to attend Albany Law School in New York’s capital. At the end of one year of courses, Jackson received a certificate of graduation, though not a law degree. Before Jackson could practice law in New York, he had to complete an additional year of apprenticeship. Finally at age 21, he passed the bar exam and set up his law practice in Jamestown. Except for that single year of law school, Jackson had no formal education beyond high school. But his passion for knowledge made him a lifelong student who read widely.
“The more [learning] one has, the more he knows he has missed. It is wealth no thief can take away...How rich you will become in this kind of treasure is wholly dependent upon your own effort.”2 ~Robert H. Jackson
NEW DEAL LAWYER
As a New York Democrat, Robert Jackson knew Franklin Delano Roosevelt for twenty years before FDR became president. In 1934, Jackson went to Washington to work in the Roosevelt administration, serving as a leading attorney at the Treasury and Justice Departments. In 1938, President Roosevelt elevated Jackson to the position of Solicitor General in charge of arguing the government’s side of cases before the Supreme Court. Jackson once wrote: “The only office I ever really coveted was that of Solicitor General of the United States.”3
Two years later, President Roosevelt promoted Jackson again, this time to Attorney General. As head of the Justice Department and member of FDR’s Cabinet, Jackson helped Roosevelt prepare for what many feared was America’s inevitable entry into World War II. Jackson was involved in crafting the legal framework for the Destroyers for Bases Agreement and the Lend-Lease Act, both designed to help countries already fighting the Axis powers.
SUPREME COURT JUSTICE
In the summer of 1941, President Roosevelt nominated Jackson to the Supreme Court. On July 11, Jackson was sworn
Jackson gives his Opening Address
at the Nuremberg Trial,
November 21, 1945
in as an associate justice in a ceremony at the White House.
Unlike some Supreme Court justices, Jackson wrote all of his opinions himself. According to one of his law clerks, he worked hard to make his writing seem effortless. His opinions received widespread praise during his lifetime, and today Jackson continues to be admired as one of the best writers to sit on the Supreme Court.
After the Allies defeated Hitler’s Germany in spring 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Jackson to be chief U.S. prosecutor at the trial against the Nazi leadership. Jackson took a leave from the Supreme Court in order to work with the British, French, and Soviets in setting up the International Military Tribunal. He took the lead in negotiating the London Agreement and Charter, which established legal guidelines for the trial. The process took more than a month in the summer of 1945.
The trial, held in Nuremberg, Germany, began in November 1945. Jackson led the American prosecution team. His opening and closing addresses at the trial are known as two of the great legal arguments. Jackson said at the time, “This is the first case I have ever tried when I had first to persuade others that a court should be established, help negotiate its establishment, and when that was done, not only prepare my case but find myself a courtroom in which to try it.”4
Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson
in his judicial robes.
(Robert H. Jackson Center)
The Nuremberg Trial took far longer than Jackson expected, and he missed an entire Supreme Court term. The final verdict was delivered by the Tribunal on October 1, 1946, nearly a year after the trial began. 19 of the 22 Nazi defendants were found guilty, and 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. More than fifty years later, the International Military Tribunal remains a model for trials of war criminals throughout the world.
“The hard months at Nuremberg were well spent in the most important, enduring, and constructive work of my life.”5 ~ Robert H. Jackson
Jackson returned to the Supreme Court, where he wrote more than 300 opinions. A few of his frequently quoted opinions include: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), Korematsu v. United States (1944), Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949), and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952). One of the final Court decisions of Jackson’s career was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
“The power of the Court to protect individual or minority rights has on the other side of the coin the power to restrain the majority.”6 ~ Robert H. Jackson
On October 9, 1954, Robert H. Jackson died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., at the age of 62. He was buried in his hometown of Frewsburg, New York. Jackson and his wife had two children and eight grandchildren.
“He kept the ancient landmarks and built the new.”
Robert H. Jackson’s grave, Maple Grove Cemetery,
Frewsburg, New York.
1 Robert H. Jackson, “Tribute to Mary Willard, Jamestown, NY, June 10, 1931,” Robert H. Jackson Center.
2 Jackson, “Address at Dedication of Jamestown High School Building, November 15, 1935,” Robert H. Jackson Center.
3 Jackson, unpublished autobiography, Box 189, Robert H. Jackson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
6 Jackson, The Supreme Court in the American System of Government (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 77.