BOOK REVIEW: Oliver Wendell Holmes


Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky (Historical Biography, 2019).

This extensive and fair-minded biography of perhaps history’s single most influential Associate Justice of the American Supreme Court is something special, indeed. It gives us a great, nuanced portrait of a true intellectual, a man of convictions and courage. Yet it doesn’t gloss over his blind spots and failings (especially early on and most particularly in regards to tolerating Jim Crow era oppression of our nonwhite citizens).

The son and namesake of a once-wildly-popular poet/humorist, Holmes grew up in a well-to-do Boston alive with ideas. Early on, he developed a thirst for knowledge that led him, among other things, to be a lifelong, voracious reader on a wide range of topics. He would eventually be drawn into the theory and practice of law, where he would make his career and a lasting legacy.

But first, as a young adult, the savage horror of the American Civil War intervened. A minor officer in the Massachusetts Volunteers, he was wounded three times in action, and not expected to live twice. The waste and stupidity of it all reinforced cynical aspects of his personality, yet he did his duty as he saw it.

Back in Boston, he soon became a prominent legal scholar with the state courts and, in 1903, joined the national Supreme Court. He was among the first to recognize that “Common Law” was not something set in stone, but evolved to meet the changing needs of society. Likewise, he viewed the Constitution as a living document, a basic framework that allowed for new and unexpected developments to be addressed in novel ways.

Budiansky’s book details the fact that Holmes was fully ready to approve as legal laws that he, politically, didn’t favor–but were not banned by that guiding framework. This openness to new and controversial ideas would, combined with other thinkers’ ideas would eventually make him a champion of free speech. In fact, his writings–often far ahead of their time–largely shaped the very notion of speech freedom now taken as a given in this country.

He also became a champion of workers’ rights at a time when most of the court was bending over backwards to cow-tow to the wishes of Gilded Age industrialists.

Some of his admiring contemporaries, including the younger figures he gathered around him and who often carved out impressive careers for themselves, did him no great service in portraying him as an all-knowing legal saint (and an exponent of their own particular viewpoints).

Holmes was definitely his own man and could never be so easily pigeonholed with labels.

Likewise, while not at all neglecting the man’s personal life, Budiansky isn’t one to project his own obsessions onto his subject. Rather, the author deals with what is known about his life evenhandedly and without excessive armchair psychoanalysis.

This is a serious and sober look at a man whose life’s work impacted generations of his fellow Americans, and continues to do so today. But it’s also very readable. A healthy sprinkling of illustrations, photographs and the like add to the pleasure of discovering the man’s truly unique and extraordinary life.



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