“Consistently gripping.… [I]t’s possessed of a zest and omnivorous curiosity that reflects the boundless energy of its subject.” —Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
Oliver Wendell Holmes escaped death twice as a young Union officer in the Civil War. He lived ever after with unwavering moral courage, unremitting scorn for dogma, and an insatiable intellectual curiosity. During his nearly three decades on the Supreme Court, he wrote a series of opinions that would prove prophetic in securing freedom of speech, protecting the rights of criminal defendants, and ending the Court’s reactionary resistance to social and economic reforms.
As a pioneering legal scholar, Holmes revolutionized the understanding of common law. As an enthusiastic friend, he wrote thousands of letters brimming with an abiding joy in fighting the good fight. Drawing on many previously unpublished letters and records, Stephen Budiansky offers the fullest portrait yet of this pivotal American figure.
Historian and journalist Budiansky (Code Warriors) delivers a well-crafted and accessible biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 1935). Drawing on previously unpublished letters and other sources, Budiansky illuminates Holmes's life inside and outside the courtroom: Holmes fought (and nearly died) for the Union in the Civil War, and his letters from the front offer vivid, compelling descriptions of day-to-day horrors and insight into how the war influenced his philosophy, making him skeptical of certainty but nonetheless committed to action. Though happily married, Holmes had numerous long and close relationships with women, with whom he regularly corresponded; he comes across as an erudite correspondent whose respect for the equality of women was far ahead of his time. Budiansky's discussions of Holmes's work on the Supreme Court after his 1902 appointment cites both his influential majority decisions and dissents such as his dissent in Abrams v. U.S., which introduced the now-deeply-embedded idea that America is best served not by limiting speech but by protecting "the free trade of ideas" and notes contradictions between Holmes's private beliefs and his judicial opinions. This wide-ranging examination of Holmes as an individual and of the law he helped make will appeal to those with an interest in constitutional law as well as to general readers. Photos.