Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is probably the most celebrated figure in the history of American law. He continues to be recognized for his early achievements as a legal scholar and his distinguished career as a judge, most notably his long tenure as a justice of the United States Supreme Court.
As biographer G. Edward White points out, there have been many scholarly studies of Holmes’s life, yet there has been little attention paid the influence of his private life upon his public career. White’s intuition is that the two spheres in which Holmes himself commonly divided his life-“work” and a sphere “outside” his work (as Holmes put it)—were in reality all of one piece. Thus in order to understand Holmes the jurist, one must first understand Holmes the man: his early influences, his traumatic Civil War experiences, his love interests, and his early legal career.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was born on March 8, 1841, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a Harvard-trained physician and author who gained widespread fame among nineteenth century literary circles for his “Break- fast Table” essays; combining fictional settings and characters with stories and poems, these popular pieces appeared regularly in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in 1857. Perhaps his most famous work is the poem “Old Ironsides,” written in 1830, after he read that the legendary frigate U.S.S. Constitution was about to be destroyed.
Dr. Holmes was clearly the most important figure in his son’s early life. By the time he was sixteen, the younger Holmes resolved to formulate his own “life plan” to attain the stature enjoyed by his father. He followed his father’s footsteps and enrolled at Harvard in 1857. After being graduated in 1861, Holmes was caught up in the events of the Civil War. Inspired by the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the antislavery fervor that was sweeping New England, he enlisted in the Union Army.
Like most young men who joined, Holmes felt that he was embarking upon a great crusade to destroy the “evil institution” of slavery, but soon learned the horror and tragedy of war. He was seriously wounded three times, and his battlefield experiences profoundly affected his thinking about the meaning of his life. He had been motivated to enlist because of a strong moral conviction to fight against slavery, but after being wounded for the third time he came to the realization that it seemed he had survived the fighting almost by chance. Many of his closest comrades were dead, and the ideals of chivalry and duty that had motivated so many young men of his generation to answer the call to arms now seemed to be useless abstractions. Holmes did not believe, however, that these men died in vain; one positive lesson his involvement in the Civil War profoundly communicated to him was that there is virtue in feeling passionately about a noble cause. To act in carrying out that passion was an essential part of living one’s life to the fullest.
The war seemed to bring into sharper focus the plan he had outlined for his life. Shortly before leaving for the battlefield, Holmes had written in his diary that he expected to study law as his profession if he survived the war. Once the war was over, he resolved to immerse himself in his chosen career. He entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1864, but found it to be a tedious experience. Attendance at lectures was not compulsory, and by his second year he stopped attending classes. He chose instead to apprentice himself to a Boston law office. Nevertheless, Harvard awarded him a degree in 1866.
It was during the period between 1866 and 1882 that Holmes would undergo a radical intellectual transformation. From his earliest years as a student he read widely, cultivating interests in literature, philosophy, and natural science. After taking some time off to travel extensively in Europe, Holmes began to come into his own as a legal scholar. It was also during this time that he met his future wife, Fanny Bowditch Dixwell. Married in 1872, Holmes and Fanny remained close companions until her death in 1929.
After passing the Massachusetts bar in 1867, Holmes devoted the next fourteen years to the daily practice of law. He also continued to read widely in the subjects of law, history, and philosophy. His first literary endeavor was an 1873 revision of James Kent’s classic Commentaries on American Low, and he went on to become a regular contributor to the American Low Review.
Holmes’s magnum opus was a work entitled The Common Low (1881), a compilation of a series of lectures he delivered at the Lowell Institute in 1880. This book was one of the first attempts to analyze American law systematically on a historical and philosophical basis. As such, it was a clear break from earlier German and English traditions, which relied upon ethical and metaphysical foundations for legal theories. Holmes instead argued for an anthropological and evolutionary development of the law (no doubt influenced by Darwin), and an intense pragmatism, which he attributed to his reading of the works of American...
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