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Owen J. Roberts, Class of 1891
Justice of the Supreme Court

Owen Josephus Roberts:
A Short Retrospective on a Favorite Son

By Edwin N. Probert II 1760

This biographical sketch first appeared in the Winter 1990-2000 edition of the Patriot (Revisiting, Renewing, Celebrating Our History).

President Herbert Hoover nominated Owen J. Roberts, Class of 1891, to the United States Supreme Court in 1930. Seventy years later, this son of Germantown Academy has recessed into the shadows of history.

Roberts' pursuits at the time would be the envy of today's upwardly mobile: a legal career overshadowing the famous lawyers of the 1990s, a member of the power elite. Roberts, however, was most proud of his skills as a farmer. Here lies the key to Owen Roberts. He not only shunned the predictable but also delighted in understatement. Unluckily for us, he burnt his personal and Court papers a few months before his death; therefore, we have little chance to know him from his own words. We must come to know him from secondary sources.

Formative Years

Owen J. Roberts was of Welsh-German descent. His grandfather, William Owen Roberts, came from Wales in 1808 to settle on the banks of the Perkiomen Creek near Collegeville, and there established a gristmill. Roberts' maternal grandmother was a descendant of the Schwenkfelders, a group of early religious Pennsylvania settlers. Roberts was born in Germantown on May 2, 1875 in his parents' house on Fisher's Lane, now East Logan Street. His father was a partner in the hardware firm of Roberts and Phillips, which was located in at 118 North 3rd Street.

Young Roberts attended Germantown Academy, graduating with the Class of 1891. While a student he announced that he wanted to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, though his father wanted him to be a lawyer. His headmaster, Dr. William Kershaw, said he could do both. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 16 and graduated in 1895. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was the editor of the American Law Ledger, which became the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. He graduated with highest honors in 1898 and established himself as a fine trial lawyer. He was a founding partner of the Philadelphia firm of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads. He also served as an assistant district attorney and taught at Penn's law school. After Roberts retired from the Supreme Court, he returned to Penn as law school dean and served in that office for three years (1948-51) without salary.

His origins certainly are not aristocratic, nor are they rooted in emigrant poverty. His Welsh grandfather must have had capital to begin his gristmill, and his maternal grandmother's people were hardworking farmers. Both backgrounds embody the Protestant ethic as testified to by his father's moving from the world of manual labor to that of an urban entrepreneur. Roberts himself received the education of a young Philadelphia blueblood. Between his family’s inherent sensibilities and his formal education arises the polarity that allows Roberts to avoid ideological labels and, through his life, to be an independent thinker.

His early experiences, like those of us all, shaped him; in particular, his experiences at Germantown Academy, where he was a popular person with his peers and his faculty. Headmaster Kershaw, an American variety of Thomas Arnold, the famous head of Rugby School, had a motto from Horace that roughly translated meant knowledge without morality is useless. Kershaw was dedicated to high scholarship and meritorious citizenship. Roberts was an eager student of both.

Building a Public Profile

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge selected Roberts to investigate the corruption, bribery, and illegal land deals in the oil industry that occurred during the Harding administration. "The Fighting Welshman," as Roberts was known, sought the conviction of Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, both oil barons, and Albert B. Fall, Warren Harding's Secretary of the Interior. The investigation had dramatic elements: a bogus Canadian trading company, cross-country detective work, White House implications, and, of course, illegal high finance and money laundering. This was the infamous Teapot Dome scandal.

Remote to modern Americans as both a Washington scandal and a location, Teapot Dome was an area of Wyoming that was government owned and oil-rich. Investigative proceedings dragged on until 1929. Warren Wheaton of Philadelphia's Public Ledger stated that the government could have lost $800 million had it not been for Roberts' perseverance in unearthing clues and facts to flesh out the case.

Roberts mounted a near-successful prosecution. He did the work gratis, but after the trial, received a modest compensation from Congress. Although Roberts did not win a knockout in the battle of Teapot Dome, he won the high opinion of the press and of his fellow citizens. The American people liked the Welshman's ability to get at "the big boys." The words "Teapot Dome" came to represent government corruption. Roberts' name came to represent decency.

In 1930, Southern conservative John J. Parker was nominated by President Hoover to fill the Supreme Court vacancy caused by the death of Justice Sanford. Parker lost the appointment by two votes. Hoover then named Roberts, and the Senate with no opposing votes approved his nomination.

On the Bench

Roberts took his seat as the youngest man among the "Nine Old Men." But he was different from the others, and difference makes people uneasy. Unlike his new colleagues, Roberts was robust, jocular, casual. His name was recognized in the popular press. He could have earned the title "The Great Dissenter" because his decisions were frequently unpredictable. He wrote 21 majority and 53 dissenting opinions.

The U.S. economy had collapsed in 1929; Herbert Hoover could find no exit from this dilemma and was defeated in the election of 1930. The populace elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who introduced his New Deal of liberal reforms, many of which eventually ended up before the Supreme Court. Indeed, the primary force during Roberts' 15-year term on the Court was FDR. When political issues of the administration came before the Court, Roberts' reactions varied and, on several issues, he was the deciding vote. In fact, he was considered a swing vote.

Roberts' decisions appeared to be arrived at on their own merits on a case-by-case basis. He held invalid the Minnesota newspaper gag law. He voted against milk price controls. He supported the minimum wage law, a linchpin of Roosevelt's economic recovery program.

The president needed a Court that would uphold his New Deal fiscal and labor legislation. Buoyed by the 1936 election, Roosevelt attempted to change the composition of the Supreme Court by increasing the size of the federal judiciary. A bill to this effect was introduced in Congress, but debate was fierce. At the same time, the previously "centrist" Roberts began to vote with the liberal Justices. Rumors circulated that Roberts was a pawn of the administration, that his vote on three critical cases, including the one concerning state minimum wage law, was the "switch in time [that] saved nine." But, in reality, Roberts' change of opinion occurred prior to Roosevelt's Court-packing efforts.

Unlike many another Justice, Roberts had voiced opinions beyond the venue of the Court. As the power of Hitler rose, Justice Roberts spoke out. After the horrors of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt turned to Roberts to investigate how the disaster occurred. His work contributed to a unified army and navy effort.

The Life He Wanted To Live

From 1918, when Roberts prosecuted World War I espionage cases, to his retirement from the Court in 1945, Roberts' career was centered on the law. After 1945, his role as elder statesman blossomed. President Harry Truman had Roberts heading an amnesty board to review draft violations and wartime courts-martial. In 1946, he was the first layperson elected president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church of the United States. These two positions were harbingers of Roberts' late-life interest in humanitarian causes.

Early on, Roberts revealed a keen interest in race relations. In a 1939 address to Brown University alumni, he stated that "unreasoning hatred constituted the only menace to the foundations of this country's Government. Race, color, and political hatreds," he said, "have no place in government of reason, which ours should be." Brown had just awarded him an honorary doctorate. Of course, these were easy words to say, but Roberts was also a man of action. He worked closely with Horace Mann Bond, the president of Lincoln University, and headed the Philadelphia-area United Negro College Fund in 1948.

Roberts also was in the vanguard on mental health issues. In 1946 he chaired the National Mental Health Foundation. He supported and chaired the National Security Commission and the Citizens Emergency Committee for Universal Military Training. His support for the idea of a confederation of world democracies resulted in his presidency of the Atlantic Union Committee for a Federal Convention of Democracies. In 1953, he headed a group that sought the reorganization and modernization of the educational, administrative, and athletic policies of the University of Pennsylvania, and he was elected chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation for the Advancement of Education. In the same year he was elected to the board of regents of the scholarly Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, he was a scholar. For many years he was a member of the American Philosophical Society and, in 1952 and 1953, served as its president. All of these undertakings allowed him to be a teacher: a teacher to his fellow Americans.

The Interior Man

This litany of accomplishments almost drains the humanity from the personality of Owen J. Roberts. Before anything else he was delightfully human. And he loved the land. In 1929, he and his wife bought a 700-acre farm in Birchrunville, Pennsylvania, within a few miles of his Welsh grandfather's mill and his maternal grandparents' homestead. Here he thrived. Harkening back to his Welsh antecedents, he and his wife named the place Bryn Coed, meaning Wooded Hill. They remodeled the extant farmhouse, furnished it with their collection of antiques, and filled it with friends and family. The Robertses had one child, a daughter, named for her mother, Elizabeth Rodgers.

Bryn Coed was no gentleman-farmer enterprise. Owen Roberts ran the place for profit. As Cal Tinney reported in The Philadelphia Record, "He knows all about blooded beeves, thoroughbred colts, how to bucket feed a calf, and fatten hogs." Instead of playing golf, a game he eschewed, he enjoyed chopping wood and gardening. Guests often left Bryn Coed with arms full of vegetables and flowers. His dairy herd was noted for its high production, quality of milk, and profits.

When strangers drove onto the property, Roberts, who usually dressed in work clothes, would pass himself as one the hired hands. Once, when on a trip to the Phoenixville train station in his less-than-polished station wagon, e obliged a stranger for a ride. The conversation centered on farming and country matters. The fellow was the circulation manager for the local newspaper. Roberts opened the car door for the man when they arrived at his office. The staff surprised the passenger when they queried him about his knowing Justice Roberts.

This interlude opens another, integral part of the Roberts character. He had great humor, not the humor of satire or of the inane, but the humor to enjoy life. When the Court was in session, he would periodically share a wisecrack with another Justice. He rode the trolley from his home in Georgetown. He ate in public restaurants and cafeterias. He and his wife entertained widely and well in Washington, cracking the isolated reserve of many a fellow Justice. Roberts was a tall, tobacco-smoking, smiling fellow who had a passion for life and what it had to offer - from walking the halls of political power to canoeing in the Poconos.

On May 17, 1955, Owen Josephus Roberts died at Bryn Coed. His wife and daughter were with him. He burnt all his personal papers a few months earlier. His funeral was a quiet affair, and his body was cremated. This "synpathetic and noble citizen," as one observer captured him, this "character in action," as Senator George Wharton Pepper described him, seemed to preordain his own obscurity. At Germantown Academy, however, his memory is honored by the Owen J. Roberts Society discussion group and the annual awarding of the Owen J. Roberts Memorial Prize to Upper and Middle School students who demonstrate "originality of thought and independence of judgement." Yet, at least for the serious historian, his accomplishments do not permit his slipping quietly away. Beyond his love of his family, his farm, his teaching, and the law, Owen J. Roberts had another preoccupation that brings a reprise of the role of Germantown Academy's legendary headmaster William Kershaw.

Kershaw was dedicated not only to the scholarly growth of his students but also to their moral growth. Kershaw was a mentor for Roberts, and Roberts, following Kershaw's template, took a strong interest in the moral growth of young men. Roberts rose to be one the highest ranking leaders in the Boy Scouts of America. He was an active board member of Girard College, then a private residential Philadelphia school for poor and orphaned boys. One of journalist Drew Pearson's columns recounts an experience at Girard College:

Most of the boys at Girard regard the members of the board as mossback old fogies, but Roberts they always liked.

On one occasion Roberts shared the [graduation] honors with Joseph P. McLaughlin, he orator of the senior class, whoo was warmly congratulated by Roberts.

"I enjoyed your speech very much," said the Justice. "You were very good indeed."

"Thanks, " replied the youngster, unabashed. "I thought you were all right, too."

One can only imagine the broad smile that signified Roberts's reaction. And, McLaughlin's understatement certainly can summarize how so many regarded Roberts.

Edwin Nightingale Probert II 1760has been teaching English in the Upper School since 1967 and also serves as the Academy's archivist. He completed his bachelor's degree at Edinboro State College. He is president of the Philadelphia Branch of the English-Speaking Union.

Kendall Mattern, Chairman of the Upper School History Department, accepts the portrait of Owen J. Roberts from Edward J. Piszek 1760.

The portrait, commemorating the service of Roberts, class of 1891, was commissioned by the Copernicus Society. The portrait will hang in the reception area of the Administration wing.

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Last Updated: Wednesday, January 10, 2001 MKH
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