"Robert H. Jackson" by Gail Jarrow


From the 1930s through the 50s one of the most noted persons in America’s legal community was Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954). He was a “country lawyer” who was not afraid to take on unpopular cases, a loyal Democrat from a corner of New York that tended Republican, a friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from FDR’s days in the New York State Senate. (The manuscript of his memoir of the Roosevelt Administration, “That Man”, was discovered and published in 2003). Jackson’s career would take him from a small town in the Southern Tier to Washington, DC, where he served as Solicitor General of the United States, U.S. Attorney General and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.


Jackson may be remembered best today as the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials that brought justice to the leaders of the Nazi regime at the conclusion of World War Two. But if history has treated Robert Jackson well, historians have not remembered him with generosity. There has not been a book-length biography of Jackson since “America’s Advocate” in 1958 by Binghamton attorney Eugene Gerhart. The new book, entitled “Robert H. Jackson: New Deal Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, Nuremberg Prosecutor”, is 128 pages long and is intended for young people.

The author is Gail Jarrow, who lives in Ithaca. It is her fourteenth book, both fiction and non-fiction, all aimed at young readers. With a degree in zoology, Ms. Jarrow has written extensively about bears, naked mole-rats and hookworms but her most recent work prior to her biography of Jackson was “The Printer’s Trial: The case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press.” It’s the kind of book young Bob Jackson would have read, though he would surely have enjoyed the animal books too.

Robert Houghwout Jackson grew up in Frewsburg, in the far western corner of the Southern Tier, close to the city of Jamestown and the Chautauqua Institution. He showed an early interest in being a lawyer (which his father did not support) and even as a youth was an impressive orator. Upon completing his schooling in Frewsburg he enrolled for one more year of high school in Jamestown, taking courses not available in Frewsburg. He was also a regular visitor to Chautauqua where he was influenced by the ideas and style of William Jennings Bryan.

Jackson’s unorthodox education is a major theme of Jarrow’s book. He borrowed money to attend Albany Law School, and his studies in Albany also gave him a close view of state government. But after one year he returned to Jamestown and an apprenticeship in the law office of attorney Frank Mott, a Democratic Party activist. Jackson never received a law degree.

Robert Jackson came to Washington in 1934 as counsel in the Treasury Department and soon made headlines with his successful conviction of former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon for tax evasion. He rose through several high-profile positions to become Solicitor General (the only job he said he coveted), Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice. He was spoken of as a candidate for Governor of New York (a job he didn’t want).

Jackson was a possible pick for Chief Justice should that position become open, but in 1945 his life and career took a turn when President Truman asked him to be the chief American prosecutor at the Nazi war crimes trial. There are several chapters in Jarrow’s book about that historic event and Jackson’s crucial role. His four-hour opening statement is considered one of the great speeches of its time.

May it please Your Honors:
The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.

Gail Jarrow joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about researching and writing “Robert H. Jackson” and discuss his life and unique legal career.

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