Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs GCB, GCMG, PC, KC (6 August 1855 – 11
February 1948) was an Australian lawyer, politician, and judge who
served as the ninth Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1931
to 1936. He had previously served on the
High Court of Australia
High Court of Australia from
1906 to 1931, including as Chief Justice from 1930.
Isaacs was born in
Melbourne and grew up in
Beechworth (in country Victoria). He began working as a schoolteacher
at the age of 15, and later moved to
Melbourne to work as a clerk and
studied law part-time at the University of Melbourne. Isaacs was
admitted to the bar in 1880, and soon became one of Melbourne's
best-known barristers. He was elected to the Victorian Legislative
Assembly in 1892, and subsequently served as solicitor-general under
James Patterson and attorney-general under George Turner and Alexander
Isaacs entered the new federal parliament at the 1901 election,
representing the Protectionist Party. He became Attorney-General of
Australia in 1905, under Alfred Deakin, but the following year left
politics in order to become an associate justice of the High Court.
Isaacs was often in the minority in his early years on the court,
particularly with regard to federalism, where he advocated the
supremacy of the Commonwealth Government. The balance of the court
eventually shifted, and he famously authored the majority opinion in
the Engineers case of 1920, which abolished the reserved powers
doctrine and fully established the paramountcy of Commonwealth law.
In 1930, Prime Minister
James Scullin appointed Isaacs as Chief
Justice, in succession to Sir Adrian Knox. Later that year, Scullin
nominated Isaacs as his preferred choice for governor-general. The
selection of an Australian (rather than the usual British aristocrat)
was unprecedented and highly controversial. King
George V was opposed
to the idea but eventually consented, and Isaacs took office in
January 1931 as the first Australian-born holder of the office. He was
the first governor-general to live full-time at Yarralumla, and
throughout his five-year term was popular among the public for his
frugality during the Depression. Isaacs was also Australia's first
Jewish governor-general, and in retirement became known for his
1 Early life
2 Legal career
3 Political career
3.1 Victorian MP, 1892–1901
3.2 Federal MP, 1901–1906
4 High Court, 1906–1931
5 Governor-General, 1931–1936
6 Later life
9.1 Works by Isaacs
9.2 Works about Isaacs
12 External links
Isaacs in the
1898 Australasian Federal Convention album.
Isaacs was the son of Alfred Isaacs, a tailor of Jewish ancestry from
the town of Mława, Poland. Seeking better prospects, Alfred left
Poland and worked his way across what is now Germany, spending some
months in Berlin and Frankfurt. By 1845 he had passed through Paris
and arrived to work in London, where he met Rebecca Abrahams; the two
married in 1849. After news of the 1851
Victorian gold rush
Victorian gold rush reached
England, Australia became a very popular destination and the Isaacs
decided to emigrate. By 1854 they had saved enough for the fare,
Liverpool in June 1854 and arriving in
September. Some time after arriving the Isaacs moved into a cottage
and shopfront in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, where Alfred continued
his tailoring. Isaac Alfred Isaacs was born in this cottage on 6
August 1855. His family moved to various locations around Melbourne
while he was young, then in 1859 moved to
Yackandandah in northern
Victoria, close to family friends. At this time
Yackandandah was a
gold mining settlement of 3,000 people.
Isaacs had siblings born in
Melbourne and Yackandandah: John, who
later became a solicitor and Victorian Member of Parliament, and
sisters Carolyn and Hannah were all born in Yackandandah. A brother
was born in Melbourne, and another sister was born in Yackandandah,
but both died very young. His first formal schooling was from
sometime after 1860 at a small private establishment. At eight he won
the school arithmetic prize, winning his photograph by the
schoolmaster, who was also a photographer and bootmaker. Yackandandah
state school was opened in 1863 and Isaacs enrolled as a pupil. Here
he excelled academically, particularly in arithmetic and languages,
though he was a frequent truant, walking off to spend time in the
nearby mining camps. To help Isaacs gain a better quality education,
in 1867, his family moved to nearby
Beechworth first enrolling him in
the Common school then in the
Beechworth Grammar School. He
excelled at the Grammar School, becoming dux in his first year and
winning many academic prizes. In his second year he was employed
part-time as an assistant teacher at the school, and took up after
school tutoring of fellow students. In September 1870, when Isaacs was
just 15 years old, he passed his examination as a pupil teacher and
taught at the school from then until 1873. Isaacs was next employed as
an assistant teacher at the
Beechworth State School, the successor to
the Common school.
While employed at the State School, Isaacs had his first experience of
the law, as an unsuccessful litigant in an 1875 County Court case. He
disputed a payment arrangement with the headmaster of his school,
resigning as part of the dispute. After returning to teaching, now
back at the Grammar School, he expanded his interest in the law;
reading law books and attending court sittings.
As a child Isaacs became fluent in Russian, which his parents spoke
frequently, as well as English and some German. Isaacs later gained
varying degrees of proficiency in Italian, French, Greek, Hindustani
In 1875, he moved to
Melbourne and found work at the Prothonotary's
Office of the Law Department. In 1876, while still working full-time,
he studied law at the University of Melbourne. He graduated in 1880
Master of Laws
Master of Laws degree in 1883. He married Deborah 'Daisy'
Jacobs, daughter of a tobacco merchant, at her parents' home in St
Kilda on 18 July 1888. They had two daughters, one born in 1890 and
the other in 1892. The daughters were Marjorie Isaacs Cohen who died
in 1968 and was survived by a son (Thomas B. Cohen), and Nancy Isaacs
Cullen. Lady Isaacs died at Bowral, New South Wales in 1960.
Victorian MP, 1892–1901
In 1892 Isaacs was elected to the
Victorian Legislative Assembly
Victorian Legislative Assembly as a
liberal. He was the member for Bogong from May 1892 until May 1893 and
between June 1893 and May 1901. In 1893 he became Solicitor-General in
the Patterson ministry. From 1894 to 1899 he was Attorney-General in
the Turner ministry, and served as acting Premier on some occasions.
In 1897 he was elected to the Convention that drafted the Australian
Constitution, where he supported those arguing for a more democratic
draft. He took silk as a
Queen's Counsel in 1899.
Federal MP, 1901–1906
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Isaacs was elected to the first federal Parliament in 1901 to the seat
of Indi as a critical supporter of
Edmund Barton and his Protectionist
government. He was one of a group of backbenchers pushing for more
radical policies and he earned the dislike of many of his colleagues
through what they saw as his aloofness and rather self-righteous
attitude to politics.
Alfred Deakin appointed Isaacs Attorney-General in 1905 but he was a
difficult colleague and in 1906 Deakin was keen to get him out of
politics by appointing him to the High Court bench. He was the first
serving minister to resign from the parliament.
High Court, 1906–1931
Isaacs as a High Court judge
On the High Court, Isaacs joined
H. B. Higgins
H. B. Higgins as a radical minority
on the court in opposition to the chief justice, Sir Samuel Griffith.
He served on the court for 24 years, acquiring a reputation as a
learned and radical but uncollegial justice. Isaacs
was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St
George in the King's
Birthday Honours of 1928 for his service on the
High Court. Isaacs is one of only eight justices of the High Court
to have served in the
Parliament of Australia
Parliament of Australia prior to his appointment
to the court; the others were Edmund Barton, Richard O'Connor, H. B.
Higgins, Edward McTiernan, John Latham, Garfield Barwick, and Lionel
Murphy. He was also one of two to have served in the Parliament of
Victoria, along with Higgins. In April 1930, the Labor Prime Minister,
James Scullin, appointed the 75-year-old Isaacs as chief justice,
succeeding Sir Adrian Knox.
Isaacs in his viceregal uniform, standing with his wife
Shortly after appointing him as Chief Justice, Scullin decided to
appoint an Australian as Governor-General and offered the post to
Isaacs. Scullin personally advised King
George V to make the
appointment during his 1930 trip to Europe. The King reluctantly
agreed to his advice, although his own preferred appointee was
Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, who had commanded the Australian
Imperial Force during the First World War. Isaacs' appointment was
announced in December 1930, and he was sworn in on 22 January 1931. He
was not only the first Australian-born governor-general, but also the
first non-British governor-general in any dominion. Thus Isaacs agreed
to a reduction in salary and conducted the office with great
frugality. He gave up his official residences in Sydney and Melbourne
and most official entertaining. Although he was sworn into office in
the chamber of the
Victorian Legislative Council
Victorian Legislative Council in Melbourne, rather
than in Parliament House in Canberra, he was the first
Governor-General to live permanently at Government House, Canberra.
This was well-received with the public, as was Isaacs's image of
rather austere dignity. Isaacs was promoted to a Knight Grand Cross of
the Order of St Michael and St George in April 1932. His term as
Governor-General concluded on 23 January 1936, and he retired to
Victoria. In 1937, he was further honoured with the award of Knight
Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.
Isaacs was 81 when his term ended in 1936, but his public life was far
from over. He remained active in various causes for another decade and
wrote frequently on matters of constitutional law. In the 1940s he
became embroiled in controversy with the Jewish community both in
Australia and internationally through his outspoken opposition to
Zionism. His principal critic was Julius Stone. Isaacs was
supported by Rabbi Jacob Danglow (1880–1962) and Harold Boas. Isaacs
insisted that Judaism was a religious identity and not a national or
ethnic one. He opposed the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Isaacs said "[p]olitical
Zionism to which I am irrevocably opposed for
the reasons which will be found clearly stated, must be sharply
distinguished from religious and cultural
Zionism to which I am
Zionism partly because he disliked nationalism of all
kinds and saw
Zionism as a form of Jewish national chauvinism—and
partly because he saw the Zionist agitation in Palestine as disloyalty
British Empire to which he was devoted. Following the King
David Hotel bombing in 1946, he wrote that "the honour of Jews
throughout the world demands the renunciation of political Zionism".
Isaacs' main objections to Political
"A negation of Democracy, and an attempt to revert to the Church-State
of bygone ages.
Unwarranted by the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, or any other
right; contrary to Zionist assurances to Britain and to the Arabs and
in present conditions unjust to other Palestinians politically and to
As regards unrestricted immigration, a discriminatory and an
undemocratic camouflage for a Jewish State.
An obstruction to the consent of the Arabs to the peaceful and
prosperous settlement in Palestine of hundreds of thousands of
suffering European Jews, the victims of Nazi atrocities; and
provocative of Moslem antagonism within and beyond the Empire, and
consequently a danger to its integrity and safety.
Inconsistent in demanding on one hand, on a basis of a separate Jewish
nationality everywhere Jews are found, Jewish domination in Palestine,
and at the same time claiming complete Jewish equality elsewhere than
in Palestine, on the basis of a nationality common to the citizens of
Isaacs said "the Zionist movement as a whole...now places its own
unwarranted interpretation on the Balfour Declaration, and makes
demands that are arousing the antagonism of the Moslem world of nearly
400 millions, thereby menacing the safety of our Empire, endangering
world peace and imperiling some of the most sacred associations of the
Jewish, Christian, and Moslem faiths. Besides their inherent injustice
to others these demands would, I believe, seriously and detrimentally
affect the general position of Jews throughout the world".
In his later years, Isaacs became embroiled in legal battles with Edna
Davis, the wife of his brother John. He forced her out of the family
home, reclaimed her wedding ring, and finally had her declared a
Isaacs died at his home in South Yarra, Victoria, in the early hours
of 11 February 1948, at the age of 92. He was the last surviving
member of Alfred Deakin's 1905–1906 Cabinet. The Commonwealth
government accorded him a state funeral, held on 13 February, and he
was buried in
Melbourne General Cemetery after a synagogue
In May 1949 he was honoured with the naming of the Australian
Division of Isaacs
Division of Isaacs in the outer southern suburbs of
Melbourne. At a redistribution in November 1968, the electorate was
abolished and a separate
Division of Isaacs
Division of Isaacs was created in the
south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It exists to this day. The
Canberra suburb of Isaacs was named after him in 1966.
In 1973 Isaacs was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait
issued by Australia Post.
Works by Isaacs
The new agriculture, 1901, Melbourne : Department of Agriculture
Opinion of the Hon. Isaac A. Isaacs, K.C., M.P., re the case of
Lieutenant Witton, 1902, Melbourne : [s.n.]
The Riverina Transport case, 1938, Melbourne : Australian
Natives' Association, Victorian Board of Directors
Australian democracy and our constitutional system, 1939,
Melbourne : Horticultural Press
An appeal for a greater Australia : the nation must itself take
power for its post-war reconstruction; the constitutional issue
stated; dynamic democracy, 1943, Melbourne : Horticultural Press
Referendum powers : :a stepping stone to greater freedom,
1946, Melbourne : [s.n.]
Palestine : peace and prosperity or war and destruction?
Political Zionism : undemocratic, unjust, dangerous, 1946,
Melbourne : Ramsey Ware Publishing
Works about Isaacs
Cowen, Sir Zelman.
Isaac Isaacs (Oxford University Press) 1967;
(University of Queensland Press) new ed. 1993.
Gordon, Max. Sir Isaac Isaacs: a Life of Service (Heinemann:
Lee, Godfrey S. The battle of the scholars: the debate between Sir
Isaac Isaacs and
Julius Stone over
Zionism during World War II,
Australian Journal of Politics and History, v.31, no.1, 1985,
Kirby, Michael (Dec 2005). "Sir
Isaac Isaacs – a sesquicentenary
Melbourne University Law Review. 29 (3):
880–904. [permanent dead link]
^ Gordon (1963), pp.1–5
^ Gordon (1963), pp.9–10
^ Gordon (1963), pp.12–14
^ Gordon (1963), pp.13,18
^ Gordon (1963), pp.19–20
^ a b Cowen, Zelman (1983). "Isaacs, Sir Isaac Alfred (1855–1948)".
Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National
University. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
^ Gordon (1963), p.23
^ Gordon (1963), pp.23–25
^ Gordon (1963), pp.12–13,17
^ Biography – Sir
Isaac Isaacs Australian Dictionary of Biography.
anu.edu.au. Retrieved on 2013-12-06.
^ Colin Choat (2001). "Obituary – Lady Deborah (Daisy) Isaacs –
Obituaries Australia". Obituaries Australia. Retrieved
^ Sir Isaac Isaacs, Contribution and significance of an individual in
the 1930s, Australia between the wars: 1930s, History Year 9, NSW
Online Education Home Schooling Skwirk Australia. Skwirk.com.au.
Retrieved on 2011-06-06.
^ "No. 33390".
The London Gazette
The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1928.
^ Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 268
^ "No. 33819". The London Gazette. 22 April 1932. p. 2633.
^ "No. 34396".
The London Gazette
The London Gazette (Supplement). 11 May 1937.
^ Julius Stone, "Stand up and be counted!" An open letter to the Rt
Isaac Isaacs on the occasion of the 26th anniversary of the
Jewish National Home, 1944.
^ Isaacs, pp. 7–8.
^ Isaacs, pp. 8–9.
^ Mason, Keith (2012). Lawyers then and now. Federation Press.
^ "Death of Sir
Isaac Isaacs in Melbourne". The
Canberra Times. 12
February 1948. p. 1. Retrieved 19 May 2014 – via National
Library of Australia.
^ Cowen, Zelman (1993). Isaac Isaacs. St Lucia, Queensland: U
Queensland P. p. 257.
^ Australian stamp. None. Retrieved on 2011-06-06.
Cowen, Zelman (1993). Isaac Isaacs. St Lucia, Queensland: U Queensland
Gordon, Max (1963). Sir Isaac Isaacs. Adelaide: Heinemann.
Isaacs, Sir Isaac. ‘Palestine: Peace and Prosperity or War and
Destruction? Political Zionism: Undemocratic, Unjust, Dangerous’
(Ramsay Ware Publishing) 14 January 1946
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Isaac Isaacs.
University of Melbourne: Isaac Alfred Isaacs includes photograph
Australian Dictionary of Biography: Isaac Alfred Isaacs includes
portrait as Chief Justice
National Library of Australia: Papers of Sir Isaac Isaacs
Isaac Isaacs Victorian Parliamentary Profile
Indi Election Results 1901
Hail to the Chief Isaacs ("per the medium of" Tony Blackshield)
interviewed by Keith Mason in 2011. Retrieved 24 May 2014
Attorney-General of Australia
Governor-General of Australia
Parliament of Australia
Member for Indi
Sir Adrian Knox
Chief Justice of Australia
Sir Frank Gavan Duffy
Governors-General of Australia
Justices of the High Court of Australia
Justices shown in order of appointment
Second Deakin Cabinet (1905–06)
Prime Minister: Alfred Deakin
Thomas Playford II
ISNI: 0000 0000 6699 0239
BNF: cb16643536z (data)