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Portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes
Portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

b. March 8, 1841, Boston, MA
d. March 6, 1935, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the oldest of three children of the famous medical doctor and writer, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a cofounder of the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. Holmes attended private school and then Harvard College, graduating in 1861. The Civil War broke out just before his graduation, and he joined the 20th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers and served for three years, suffering serious wounds in 1861 at Ball's Bluff, in 1862 at Antietam, and in 1863 at Chancellorsville. He had started the war an idealist and ardent abolitionist; by the end he was disillusioned and dispirited.

Uncertain about his vocation, Holmes entered Harvard Law School in 1864 and graduated in 1866. He was admitted to the bar in 1867 and practiced without great distinction for several firms over the next 15 years. In 1880 Holmes was invited to deliver a series of 12 lectures on common law at the Lowell Institute in Boston. From the material of those lectures he compiled a book, THE COMMON LAW (1881), that brought him international recognition. In it he articulated his signature judicial philosophy: "The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. ... The substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient." In effect, Holmes argued, law and its interpretation shift with the shifting demands of history and adjust to what the majority of people believe is necessary and fair. This novel theory challenged prevailing beliefs that law was a set of rules applied by formal logic.

In 1882 Holmes became a professor at Harvard Law School, and later that year he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, on which he served for 20 years. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Holmes to the Supreme Court, but soon found himself disappointed with his choice, commenting, "Out of a banana I could carve a firmer backbone." In fact, on political matters Holmes could not be easily pigeonholed. He was solitary, introspective, and solemn. He once commented, "I wonder if cosmically an idea is any more important than the bowels." He had a skeptical, fatalistic view of the world, colored by his experiences in the Civil War. Though he believed in judicial restraint -- the idea that the Court should defer to the popular will as embodied in laws passed by legislatures -- he respected the validity of legal precedent.

Holmes was not a progressive, but his belief that people had the right to make whatever laws they liked, good or bad, led him to defend the progressive legislation of his day. He became known as the "Great Dissenter" for his eloquent minority opinions, and he was renowned for his concise, often trenchant expression of ideas. In what is probably his best-known phrase, writing for a unanimous Court in Schenck v. United States (1919) he advocated the "clear and present danger" test for evaluating state infringement upon the freedom of speech, and he used the example of a person "falsely shouting fire in a theater." He served until he was 90 years old. He wrote more than 2,400 opinions as justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, and he is generally considered one of America's greatest justices.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

Charles Evans Hughes James McReynolds Louis Brandeis William Howard Taft George Sutherland Harlan Fiske Stone view all biographies Stephen Field Oliver Wendell Holmes