Gail Goundry Jarrow '74

Keeping history alive
January 31, 2009
Gail Goundry Jarrow '74

Lindsay France

Robert H. Jackson never went to college and couldn't afford law school. But inspired by a Democrat grandfather who loved politics, a rigorous work ethic instilled at a young age, and a lively intellect fueled by voracious reading habits, Jackson rose to international heights of power and respect.

In her new book, Robert H. Jackson: New Deal Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, Nuremberg Prosecutor, Gail Jarrow writes about the only American in history to serve as solicitor general, attorney general, and Supreme Court justice. Jackson was also the chief U.S. prosecutor for the Nuremberg Trials, delivering a riveting four-hour opening statement and overseeing a prosecution team of twenty-three lawyers.

Although written for a young-adult audience, Jarrow's book provides readers of all ages with a gripping account of Jackson's personal life, as well as his lasting influence on U.S. and international law. It also presents a sweeping narrative about the upheavals and transformations of the world during the first half of the twentieth century.

"When I started researching the book, I discovered that lawyers and people in government knew who Jackson was, but not many other people did. He helped shape government decisions during an incredible period of our history—the Great Depression, FDR and the New Deal, World War II, the Nuremberg Trials, and Brown v. Board of Education. And his writings and decisions are still relevant today."

Jarrow notes, for example, that in the build-up to World War II, the Justice Department was authorized to tap phone calls and investigate activities of people deemed suspicious. Jackson supported the need to be vigilant against espionage and sabotage, but warned, "In the process of upholding democratic ideals, we must not unwittingly destroy or impair what we are…endeavoring to preserve."

Jarrow spent hours in the Library of Congress researching the book, and worked closely with the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York. Among the pleasant surprises she happened upon in the process was the discovery that Jackson received an honorary degree from Duke in 1949.

When the book was published last spring, the Jackson Center sent two copies of Jarrow's book to each of the current Supreme Court justices, asking them to keep one, and sign and return the other for its archives. Nearly all of the justices have done so, and several have included personal accounts of the ways in which Jackson has influenced their own lives. (The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a law clerk with Jackson, and current Chief Justice John Roberts, in turn, clerked with Rehnquist. Sandra Day O'Connor has called Jackson "one of the finest justices ever to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States.")

A zoology major at Duke, Jarrow credits an elective history course with Anne Firor Scott as pivotal to her understanding of the importance of primary research. It's a lesson that continues to guide her career. She recently spent time in the university's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, conducting research for her next book, on Civil War spy balloons.