Sir Isaac Isaacs
Isaac Isaacs earned his place in history as a politician and as one of Australia's greatest lawyers and judges. He was also the first Australian-born Governor-General.
Life and contributions
Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs was born in Melbourne on 6 August 1855. His father, who was of Polish- Jewish origin, and his mother, had immigrated to Australia from England a year before the birth of their first born, Isaac Isaacs. From an early age he was a bright child, later proving his aptitude for learning by becoming dux of his class.
After graduating from school he went on to become a pupil-teacher before moving back down to Melbourne in 1875, where he began working full-time as a clerk in the Prothonotary's Office of the Crown Law Department. A year later, while still holding down his full-time job there, he commenced part-time study in a Bachelor of Law degree through the University of Melbourne. He graduated in 1880 with first class honours, before continuing his study to become a Master of Law in 1883. During this time his high level of intelligence became quickly apparent. It was suggested that he had a photographic memory, owing to his ability to accurately cite details of cases.
He continued to work in the Crown Law Office throughout his study until 1882, when he was called to the Victorian Bar. While Isaacs started out at a disadvantage to his peers, being without any solid connections and finances, it did not stay this way for long. His reputation for being hardworking, knowledgeable and determined meant that, in a matter of less than a decade, his practice grew to include a diverse range of cases on behalf of clients, which included banks, land companies and the stock exchange.
His career was ascending and so was his personal life, with Isaacs' marriage to Deborah Jacobs taking place on 18 July 1888. In 1890 and 1892, two daughters were born to the couple.
In 1892 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as a member for Bogong, with a policy speech that focused on a number of issues pertinent to the current depression and which would have appealed to many people, including the poor. His speech addressed: support for Federation, income to be taxed over the current system of indirect taxes, railway reform and retrenchment to be equally spread. The following year, in 1893, he became Solicitor-General for Victoria and the year after that he became Victoria's Attorney-General. He held on to the latter position, under the rise and fall of several different ministries, until 1901. In 1897 he was elected by popular vote to appear as a Victorian delegate at what was Australia's second constitutional convention. This was where the Australian Constitution was drafted.
In 1899, he was made a Queen's Counsel (QC), otherwise known as the 'Silks,' in reference to the silky gowns which QCs wear when sitting within the Bar of court. See image 1
Isaacs, an active legislative member, in 1901 was naturally elected to the first federal parliament. He was acting Premier and although was encouraged to remain as premier, had always had his intentions set on the House of Representatives. Elected for Indi, a Victorian seat, he advocated more radical policies and was a strong supporter of Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton and his Protectionist Party. He also supported the High Court convening in all State capitals and the White-Australia Policy, which was designed to prevent non-white immigration into Australia.
On 5 July 1905, Deakin reassumed office and appointed Isaacs as the Commonwealth's attorney- general. At fifty he showed no signs of slowing down, maintaining the largest private practice of the Victorian Bar in addition to more-than-competently fulfilling his duty as attorney- general. However, this was not the best partnership between Deakin and Isaacs, with Isaacs being moved away from politics in the direction of the judicial branch of the Australian government - the High Court bench. For 24 years he served on the Court, making a number of changes along the way to force the Court to recognise the social implications of decisions handed down. During his time on the Court, while on leave in Britain in 1921, he was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council and in 1924, a member of its judicial committee.
In 1930, Isaacs, who had been acting as chief justice during 1925 and 1927, was appointed to the position by the Labor Prime Minister James Scullin. The following year, the Scullin government fought to have an Australian as the governor-general of Australia. Although King George V was reluctant to have a governor-general who was not a British aristocrat, he eventually approved Isaac's appointment. In 1931, at the grand age of 75, Australia's first native Australian-born Governor-General was sworn in. This created controversy among the Nationalist opposition and members of the public, with many believing that an Australian-born governor-general went against tradition. In addition to this, Isaacs' posting came at a time when Australia was being hit by the full force of the Great Depression and politicians were the favourite scapegoats for the angry public.
While Isaacs was appointed by the Labor government, his term as the Governor-General of Australia continued even after Labor was replaced by the United Australia Party, until he retired in 1936. Upon retiring, he travelled to England before moving with his wife to Melbourne.
As a man who had always had a sharp mind and a passion for learning, he certainly did not deviate from this once he entered retirement. From a young age he had taken to learning, studying a wide range of subjects. He studied languages throughout his life, including German, Russian, Italian and a little Chinese. He was a prolific reader of anything from science to religion. If anything, his retirement gave him the time that he had never had to write pamphlets and articles which campaigned for constitutional reform, work with students through the Public Library, make speeches and preside over functions.
Throughout his life he was proud to acknowledge his Jewish heritage, and always quick to defend it against any prejudices or anti-Semitism. Upon his retirement, he showed his feelings about his Jewish heritage and identity even more strongly, by writing and speaking on religion in the Jewish community. In the 1940s he made himself infamous for what some consider as his excessive opposition to Zionism. Isaacs believed that 'Jewish' referred to a religion and that it was not able to be used to define one's national or ethnic identity. He was strongly devoted to the British Empire and did not support the idea of the Jewish people having a homeland in the Land of Israel. This had a negative impact on his reputation in the Jewish community.
It was evident to many that although he had aged; his mind exhibited the same self righteousness that it had in his earlier days. Whether it was as a lawyer, as a politician or as a judge, his peers often shared similar sentiments regarding Isaacs. While his knowledge, his conviction and his determined ambition were all admirable characteristics, in him they were often so extreme that they were often considered ruthless. As a result, there were a number of his peers who did not like, or did not trust Isaacs. There were an equal number of people who were close to him who believed that the reason his colleagues did not like him was because they were jealous of his ambition and his ability.
Regardless of whether he was liked or not, he made a significant mark on the Australian government. After he died in his sleep at his Melbourne home on 12 February 1948, Sir Isaac Isaacs was given a state funeral and a synagogue service. Throughout his life, Isaacs was officially honoured by the British. He was twice awarded the sixth most senior order in the British Orders System, being made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1928 and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1932. Then in 1938 he received the fourth-most senior order in the British Orders of Chivalry, the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB). Since his death, in memory of Isaacs, a Canberra suburb and federal electorate have been named after him, a stamp has been issued in his honour, and his name has become the title of a chair of law at Australia's largest university, Monash University. See image 3
Sir Isaac Isaacs, although controversial at times, was a significant figure to Australia, the Australian people and the Jewish community. He played an important role in the development and establishment of the Australian Constitution. He will also be remembered for his contribution to the legal history of Australia. A highly-learned and energetic man, with an extraordinary amount of determination, he knew what he wanted and he succeeded in achieving it. See animation