Isaac Alfred Isaacs was born on 6 August 1855 at the family cottage in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. He was the eldest of the six children of Polish-born tailor Alfred Isaacs and his London-born wife, Rebecca, née Abrahams, who had migrated from England to Victoria the year before Isaac was born. Remarkable for her powerful intellect and extensive interests, despite her humble background, his mother exerted an enduring influence over Isaacs and, until her death in 1912, was his principal supporter.
Educated in various places as his family moved around north-eastern Victoria, Isaacs attended first a small private school and then the state school in the gold mining settlement of Yackandandah. After some time in the Common (later state) school in nearby Beechworth, he was enrolled in the Grammar school there. Outstanding academically, particularly in arithmetic and languages, he won many prizes throughout his school years and was dux in his first year at Beechworth Grammar School. At the age of 15 in 1870, he qualified as a pupil teacher and taught at Grammar until 1873, and then at Beechworth State School until 1875.
Attaining appointment as a clerk in the Crown Law Office in Melbourne, Isaacs gained practical legal experience while studying law part-time at the University of Melbourne from 1876. Winner of the Supreme Court Prize in 1879, he graduated with first class honours in the minimum time, then was awarded his Master of Laws in 1883. Admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1880, he left the Crown Law Office two years later to take up chambers in Temple Court. Habitually diligent, a prolific reader and a keen student of several languages, Isaacs was renowned for his photographic recall and ability to cite cases from memory with detailed accuracy. He relied on his exceptional legal ability, untiring capacity for hard work and perseverance to build up a successful and wide-ranging legal practice during the 1880s. Actively involved in the Australian Natives' Association at this time, he was also a Freemason who served as the first Grant Registrar of the United Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Victoria in 1889-1890.
At age 32, on 18 July 1888 Isaacs married 18-year-old Deborah (Daisy) Jacobs at her family home in St Kilda, Melbourne. In 1892, during a period of severe financial depression in the colony, he was elected to Victoria's Legislative Assembly as member for Bogong. Strongly supportive of social, industrial and taxation reforms during his time in the parliament, he twice served as Attorney-General, from September 1894 to December 1899 and again from November 1900 until June 1901, and on occasion acted as Premier. Concurrently continuing to practise as a barrister, he was appointed Queen's Counsel (QC)2 in 1899. Ambitious and resolute, yet courteous, Isaacs was a passionate and articulate speaker who polarised opinion throughout his life – popular for his reformist ideas, he was distrusted by some for his independent stance. An ardent supporter of Federation, he was elected as a Victorian delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention held in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897 and 1898 and played an important role in the process of federating. In England to appear before the Privy Council in mid-1900 he was able to observe at close range the final negotiations over the Constitution Bill.
Acting Premier after George Turner was appointed as Treasurer in the transitional Commonwealth ministry in January 1901, Isaacs moved to the federal Parliament as well, convincingly winning the north-eastern Victorian seat of Indi in the first general election in March 1901 and returning unopposed in 1903. Not a member of any political party, he was generally allied with the radical protectionist liberal group of parliamentarians led by Alfred Deakin. Isaacs supported the White Australia policy, and the creation of a strong and independent High Court. Also in favour of the conciliation and arbitration bill which caused the downfall of the first Deakin government in April 1904, and disapproving of the methods used by the Free Traders to bring down the subsequent Labor government over the same bill later that year, Isaacs was involved in negotiating the alliance which enabled Deakin to form his second ministry in July 1905. Appointed Attorney-General in this government, Isaacs tackled the role in his usual indefatigable style. Departmental Secretary, Robert Garran recalled that Isaacs rarely slept, maintaining the biggest practice of the Victorian Bar by day and doing full justice to his duties as Attorney-General by night.3 During his 15-month term he provided a great many pieces of advice on wide-ranging topics to the Opinion Book.
Isaacs resigned as Attorney-General when he was appointed to the bench of the High Court, newly expanded from three to five judges, on 12 October 1906. Enormously energetic and erudite, and a fervent nationalist who favoured a wide interpretation of Commonwealth power, Isaacs was not always in agreement with his fellow judges on constitutional issues. One notable exception was the landmark Engineers' decision of 19204 which, in relation to federal arbitration, reversed the Court's earlier view that Commonwealth legislative power should be construed narrowly so as to exclude powers impliedly 'reserved' to the States. Made a Privy Councillor while on leave in England in 1921, Isaacs was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1928. On 2 April 1930 he became the third Chief Justice of the High Court. His term lasted less than 10 months, and was marked by contemporaneous controversy concerning his nomination for appointment as Governor‑General.
Early in 1930, the position of Governor‑General became vacant for the first time since the 1926 Imperial Conference which had significantly altered the existing hierarchical relationship between Britain and other members of the Commonwealth of Nations. Labor Prime Minister James Scullin's view of the consequent right of a dominion, rather than the British government, to advise the monarch about the choice of Governor-General was supported by delegates at the Imperial Conference in November 1930, but was at odds with that of King George V. Faced with the displeasure of the King and his advisers, and with protests from many groups in Australia, Scullin, who wanted an Australian in the role and had nominated only Sir Isaac Isaacs, prevailed. Sir Isaac was sworn in as Governor-General on 22 January 1931. At age 75, he was the first native-born Australian and the only Chief Justice of the High Court ever appointed to the role, and the first Governor-General in the Commonwealth appointed on the recommendation of a dominion Prime Minister.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Sir Isaac proved to be a dignified and energetic Governor-General. He followed tradition in ceremonial aspects, applied his unique legal capabilities to his constitutional duties, travelled extensively in the course of his work and was an inspiring speech-maker. Serving during the later Depression years, he set an example of thrift and restraint by voluntarily surrendering one-quarter of his salary, declining to take his retired judge's pension while in office, and relinquishing official residences in Melbourne and Sydney to live more frugally in Government House in the embryonic national capital in Canberra. Elevated to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1932, Sir Isaac completed his five-year term on 23 January 1936, just after the death of King George V. On retirement, Sir Isaac travelled to England to give a personal report to King Edward VIII. In the honours list for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, Sir Isaac was named a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB).
Attentive to exercise and physical fitness all his life, he remained active in his old age. He continued to read widely, to discuss literary works, to preside at functions, to make speeches and broadcasts and to write extensively – including on constitutional matters and on biblical and religious subjects. Always proud of his British citizenship, during the 1940s he upset many in the Jewish community with his outspoken insistence that Jewishness was a matter of religion rather than race or nationality.
The last surviving member of the Constitutional Convention of 1897–98, Sir Isaac died in his sleep at his South Yarra home on 11 February 1948. Aged 92, he was survived by his wife and their two daughters. Following a state funeral and a synagogue service he was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. A Canberra suburb, a federal electoral division in Victoria and a chair of law at Monash University were named in his honour. His portrait appeared on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post in 1973.
- Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
- Zelman Cowen, 'Isaacs, Sir Isaac Alfred (1855–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/isaacs-sir-isaac-alfred-6805/text11773, accessed 9 October 2012.
- Hon. Justice Michael Kirby, 'Isaac Isaacs – A Sesquicentenary Reflection', Samuel Alexander Lecture, Wesley College Melbourne, 4 August 2005. http://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/speeches/former-justices/kirbyj/kirbyj_4aug05.pdf.
- Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
- Brian Carroll, Australia's Governors-General: From Hopetoun to Jeffery, Rosenburg Publishing, 2004.
- Appointed Queen's Counsel (QC) in the reign of Queen Victoria, Isaacs was reappointed as King's Counsel (KC) after the succession of King Edward VII in 1901.
- Robert Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1958, p. 157.
- Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920) 28 CLR 129.