John Frush Knox

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John Frush Knox
Born 1907
Oak Park, Illinois
Died 1997
Oak Park, Illinois
Occupation memoirist
Nationality American
Subject United States Supreme Court justices and culture

John Frush Knox (1907–1997)[1] served as secretary and law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds from 1936 to 1937. He is chiefly known for his memoir of that experience.


Early life[edit]

Knox was born in 1907, in Oak Park, Illinois.[2] In high school, he began writing pen pal letters to celebrities. He began with Civil War veterans and proceeded to such luminaries of the day as Helen Keller, William Howard Taft, and Admiral Byrd. He established an ongoing correspondence with members of the United States Supreme Court, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Willis Van Devanter. His most sustained correspondence was with Van Devanter, one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" of the Supreme Court.[3]

Knox did undergraduate work at the University of Chicago (Ph.B. 1930) and then studied law at Northwestern University School of Law (J.D. 1934) and the Harvard Law School (LL.M. 1936).[4] He was an indefatigable diarist, generating more than 750 pages of scrapbook, commentary and written recollection by the time he reached college. At one time, Knox claimed that he intended to surpass Samuel Pepys as a diarist.[1]

The year in Washington[edit]

After his graduation from Harvard, Knox sought employment with Van Devanter. Van Devanter recommended Knox to fellow justice James Clark McReynolds, who suffered from high employee turnover (Knox soon found out why).[3] Knox served as private secretary and law clerk to McReynolds during the Supreme Court's October 1936 term. Knox would later write a long memoir of that experience, A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Washington, centered mostly on his relations with McReynolds and McReynolds's two black servants, but also containing observations on other members of the Supreme Court at that time, and the historical period in general.[1] Such memoirs are rare; few other law clerks to Supreme Court justices have documented the experience, and Knox's memoir, though not the first published, represents the one of the earliest such documents.

Subsequent career[edit]

Knox’s clerkship ended when McReynolds fired him for taking time off to sit for the Washington, D.C. bar examination, which Knox failed. The remainder of his life was a succession of personal and professional disappointments.[2] He returned to Illinois in 1937. He initially landed a position with a prestigious Chicago law firm but was fired when he failed the Illinois bar examination. Although Knox finally passed the exam (on his third attempt), he never acquired a secure and permanent position with a firm. An attempt at running his family's already faltering mail-order book business after his father's death proved disastrous, but Knox eventually found his niche in the Chicago claims office of the Allstate Insurance Company, a Sears subsidiary, working there until his retirement in 1973.[5]

Knox was a member of the Bars of Illinois, New York and of the Supreme Court of the United States. He also belonged to the Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Society of Colonial Wars, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of the Revolution, and the Society of the War of 1812. Knox's club at Harvard was Lincoln's Inn.[4]

The dwindling value of the Sears stock on which Knox's retirement income was based made his last years difficult. A lonely bachelor who struggled with prostate cancer the last decade of his life,[5] Knox died in 1997 in Oak Park, leaving many of his papers (including his letters from Civil War Veterans) to Harvard Law School.[4]



  • Knox, John (2004). Dennis J. Hutchinson & David J. Garrow, eds., ed. The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-44863-0. 
  • Knox, John (1984). "A Personal Recollection of Justice Cardozo". Supreme Court Historical Society Quarterly. 


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