The Justice from Beacon Hill Summary

Liva Baker

The Justice from Beacon Hill

As the son of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, physician, autocrat, and man of letters, the young Oliver Wendell Holmes was a member by birth of America’s most intimidating elite. The young Holmes dealt well with the responsibilities he perceived as his heritage. After graduation from Harvard College in 1861, Holmes marched off to war. He was to be seriously wounded twice, taking a bullet through his left lung at the battle of Ball’s Bluff in October, 1861, and another through the neck at Antietam in 1862. After being shot through the heel at Second Fredericksburg in 1863, Holmes retired honorably from a war that shaped his vision of life and provided him with a lifetime’s store of anecdote and inspiration for moral reflection.

Following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Holmes moved steadily through the practice and scholarly study of law to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and then thirty distinguished years on the United States Supreme Court. Baker’s account of the evolution of Holmes’s philosophy of law is excellent, and her summaries of the issues in the many important cases Holmes grappled with are lucid and informative. Moreover, her sketches of the other justices, such as Taft, Brandeis, and Stone, bring out the human dramas as well as the conflicts in legal philosophy that absorbed Holmes and his brethren.

Two features of Holmes’s philosophy emerge very clearly: his temperamental preference for common law over natural law, and a strong reluctance to interfere with state legislation that was not expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Baker is a splendid expositor of all these matters, and she had written a biography that admires Holmes as both a man and jurist but avoids hagiography.