Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Jurist, Politician

1841 – 1935

81

Who was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States January–February 1930. Noted for his long service, his concise and pithy opinions and his deference to the decisions of elected legislatures, he is one of the most widely cited United States Supreme Court justices in history, particularly for his "clear and present danger" opinion for a unanimous Court in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States, and is one of the most influential American common law judges, honored during his lifetime in Great Britain as well as the United States. Holmes retired from the Court at the age of 90 years, 309 days, making him the oldest Justice in the Supreme Court's history. He also served as an Associate Justice and as Chief Justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and was Weld Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, of which he was an alumnus.

Profoundly influenced by his experience fighting in the American Civil War, Holmes helped move American legal thinking towards legal realism, as summed up in his maxim: "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Holmes espoused a form of moral skepticism and opposed the doctrine of natural law, marking a significant shift in American jurisprudence. As he wrote in one of his most famous decisions, his dissent in Abrams v. United States, he regarded the United States Constitution as "an experiment, as all life is an experiment" and believed that as a consequence "we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death." During his tenure on the Supreme Court, to which he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, he supported efforts for economic regulation and advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment. These positions as well as his distinctive personality and writing style made him a popular figure, especially with American progressives, despite his deep cynicism and disagreement with their politics. His jurisprudence influenced much subsequent American legal thinking, including judicial consensus supporting New Deal regulatory law, and influential schools of pragmatism, critical legal studies, and law and economics. He was one of only a handful of justices to be known as a scholar; The Journal of Legal Studies has identified Holmes as one of the three most cited American legal scholars of the 20th century.

Famous Quotes:

  • Life is action and passion; therefore, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of the time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.
  • With all humility, I think, Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might. Infinitely more important than the vain attempt to love one's neighbor as one's self. If you want to hit a bird on the wing, you must have all your will in focus, you must not be thinking about yourself, and equally, you must not be thinking about your neighbor: you must be living in your eye on that bird. Every achievement is a bird on the wing.
  • The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts live.
  • I have no respect for the passion of equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy.
  • On the whole, I am on the side of the unregenerate who affirms the worth of life as an end in itself, as against the saints who deny it.
  • Carve every word before you let it fall.
  • The riders in a race do not stop when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voices of friends and say to oneself, The work is done.
  • For I say unto you in all sadness of conviction that to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone -- when you have felt around you are a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and despair have trusted to your own unshaken will -- then only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten men who have never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought -- the subtle rapture of postponed power, which the world knows not because it has no external trappings, but which to his prophetic vision is more real than that which commands an army. And if this joy should not be yours, still it is only thus you can know that you have done what lay in you to do -- can say that you have lived, and be ready for the end.
  • Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke.
  • Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our father's have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a large part than what we suspect of what we think.

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Born
Mar 8, 1841
Boston
Also known as
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes
Parents
Spouses
Nationality
  • United States of America
Profession
Education
  • Harvard Law School
  • Harvard College
  • Harvard University
Lived in
  • Boston
Died
Mar 6, 1935
Washington, D.C.
Resting place
Arlington National Cemetery

Submitted
on July 23, 2013

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