Tag Archives: Solicitor General

Jackson List: Birthday Reading (1938)

Today marks the 126th anniversary of Robert Houghwout Jackson’s 1892 birth, in his family’s farmhouse in Spring Creek Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania.

It seems that on many a February 13, Robert Jackson did nothing special, and nothing special happened to him.

Jackson did have an unusual experience on this date in 1938—eighty years ago today.  He then was Assistant Attorney General of the United States, heading the Antitrust Division.  He also had been nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the Solicitor General of the United States, succeeding Stanley Reed who had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearing had begun in late January, and on February 13th he was in the midst of testifying, ultimately over three days, in a hearing that was thorough, very substantive, and sometimes contentious.  (To boil it down, some Senators were concerned that Jackson was a radical threat to American constitutional law and capitalist freedom and, related, that he was rising to become a leading force in the Democratic Party and, perhaps, presidential material in 1940, when it was expected that F.D.R. would not seek a third term.)  Jackson also had, in the previous week, been part of arguing before the Supreme Court in defense of the constitutionality of the Public Utility Holding Company Act, a major New Deal law.

On Sunday, February 13, 1938, his 46th birthday, Robert Jackson was the subject of a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile article, “Jackson Sets Forth His Political Philosophy.”  The article is online here, readable in full text by Times subscribers (but, alas, behind a paywall for non-subscribers).

The writer, Felix J. Belair, Jr., was The Times’s chief White House correspondent.  Belair seems to have interviewed Jackson for the article—it contains extensive quotations from him, plus two photographs.

I regard the article as strong personal profile journalism.  It is distinctly pro-Jackson, published at a moment when he was a well-publicized, controversial nominee in the middle of a Senate confirmation battle.  It also is an article that contains some of what we call political spin, and some dubious stories.  The article reports:

  • Jackson has no law degree;
  • He has many friends but few intimates;
  • He once made Justice James C. McReynolds, not generally a jovial figure on the Supreme Court bench, laugh during an oral argument;
  • Jackson defends FDR as working to make the private enterprise system work;
  • Jackson believes that people will not accept waves of unemployment; they must be fed or they will turn to a new political system;
  • His 1934-35 work at the Treasury Department, including his study of wealth concentration, was a basis for the 1935 tax reform law;
  • He is not opposed to productive bigness in companies, just to holding companies that are put together for the purpose of speculating in corporate securities;
  • He believes the U.S. needs a high wage industrial economy;
  • He thinks about the future—one quotation looks ahead to “1960” (when Jackson would have turned 68, but which he did not live to see—he died in 1954);
  • He testified in defense of FDR’s 1937 “Court-packing” proposal;
  • His record in major constitutional arguments before the Supreme Court is 4-4;
  • He is a father, a horseman, and a businessman;
  • He attended Albany Law School but did not receive a degree.  (This is true, but Belair did not report that this was only because the school regarded Jackson, age 20 when he completed all requirements, as too young to receive a degree.  The article also incorrectly states that Jackson did two years of law school course work in one year—a myth that follows him still.  And the article does not mention that in addition to attending Albany Law School, Jackson trained for the bar by apprenticing for two years in a law office.);
  • Jackson’s law practice started in (conservative) Jamestown, New York, where he defended radicals charged with crimes growing out of a street railway strike and, surprisingly, won;
  • He subsequently became counsel to businesses (including in Buffalo, New York, and elsewhere, which Belair did not mention);
  • Jackson loves horses:  they were central to his farm boyhood in Spring Creek; he owns a horse farm in Jamestown; he lives with his wife Irene, daughter Mary, and horses on a large property in Maryland;
  • He works late and rides early, often with Mary, sometimes trying out on her, or on his horse (more amenable?), speeches that he is preparing;
  • He and Irene also have a son, William (then a Yale College freshman).  (Belair reported that Jackson hoped Bill would become a lawyer, but in fact, at least by the time Bill was finishing college, Jackson was open to Bill pursuing whatever career path he wished—and he did then go to law school and became a very accomplished lawyer.);
  • Jackson likes to talk about his ancestors, including his great-grandfather Elijah Jackson, the first white settler of Spring Creek;
  • His middle name, Houghwout, is a family name, from ancestors who were early Dutch settlers New Amsterdam;
  • Jackson’s family politics:  Andrew Jackson Democrats;
  • He never sought political office.  (That is largely true, unless one counts, unreported here, his election in young adulthood to country political organization office.);
  • He was appointed corporation counsel in Jamestown by a Republican mayor (which is true—Mayor Sam Carlson was a smart, liberal Republican);
  • Jackson came to Washington at the personal request of FDR.  (This might be an exaggeration of Roosevelt’s personal role in Jackson’s recruitment to the New Deal.);
  • Jackson offers blunt criticism of the bar (the legal profession), including for its conservatism and opposition to government reform;
  • He has critics and enemies but also many friends and admirers;
  • He has been mentioned in the past for numerous offices, including the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate, and the Governorship of New York;
  • He has no idea what future will bring—maybe just a return to practicing law in Jamestown.

I assume that Jackson, on that Sunday morning, got a copy of The Times and read Belair’s profile piece.  I bet that Jackson mostly liked it.  I bet more that he didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and that if the weather was good enough he spent more time that day on horseback.

For additional Jackson Birthday reading, here are some previous Jackson Birthday-related posts:

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This post was emailed to the Jackson List, a private but entirely non-selective email list that reaches many thousands of subscribers around the world. I write to it periodically about Justice Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg and related topics. The Jackson List archive site is http://thejacksonlist.com/.  To subscribe, email me at barrettj@stjohns.edu. Thank you for your interest, and for spreading the word.