Learned Hand

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: During a career on the federal bench spanning more than half a century, Hand became one of the most respected and honored jurists in America. His commitment to tolerance and rigorous thought helped transform and modernize American law in the twentieth century.

Early Life

Billings Learned Hand was born in Albany, New York, on January 27, 1872. The second of two children born to Samuel and Lydia Coit Hand, Billings Learned (he dropped the “Billings” when he was thirty as being too “pompous”) came from a distinguished legal family. His paternal grandfather, Augustus Cincinnatus, was a prominent New York attorney, active in the Democratic Party in the late nineteenth century. His older cousin, Augustus, was a lawyer and judge and served for many years on the same federal bench as Hand. Hand’s father served a term on the highest state court in New York, the Court of Appeals.

Hand received his early education at a small private school, the Albany Academy, in New York. In 1889, following his cousin Augustus by two years, he enrolled at Harvard College. There he studied philosophy under one of the most distinguished groups of scholars of that time—men such as George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and William James. His intellectual and literary gifts were evidenced by his election to Phi Beta Kappa and by his being chosen commencement orator at his baccalaureate in 1893. He stayed on at Harvard for another year, receiving a master’s degree in philosophy.

Though strongly attracted to an academic career in philosophy, Hand again followed his cousin, entering Harvard Law School in 1894. At this time the law school was in the midst of what has been described as its “Golden Age”: Teachers such as Christopher Langdell, James Bradley Thayer, and James Barr Ames were revolutionizing the study of law through their casebook approach, and in the process were laying the foundation for the transformation of many traditional legal doctrines. In this atmosphere of intellectual ferment, Hand flourished, becoming one of the first editors of the Harvard Law Review and being graduated with honors.

Following his admission to the New York bar, Hand practiced law in Albany for the next five years. In 1902 he moved to New York City, where he spent the next seven years in what he described as the “dull and petty” work of a New York law firm. His move to New York City was perhaps also motivated by the fact that he now had a family to support. On December 6, 1902, Hand married Frances Amelia Fincke, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. They had three daughters: Mary Deshon, Frances Lydia, and Constance.

Hand’s lifelong love of the outdoors and hiking (including walking to work every day until his death) was reflected in his looks and physique. Of medium height and stockily built, he had a large, noble head highlighted by rugged features, bushy eyebrows, and dark, piercing eyes. On the bench, he was known for his quick temper, but appropriate apologies were made just as quickly. He did not suffer fools gladly, yet few jurists could be more tolerant. His demeanor was serious, but not solemn, and while he craved company and good conversation, he would also have periods of melancholy and brooding. Hand also had a streak of playfulness—he enjoyed dressing up as an Indian chief for his grandchildren’s amusement, expertly mimicking William Jennings Bryan, and singing ribald sea chanteys or Gilbert and Sullivan melodies.

Life’s Work

Hand began his judicial career in 1909. President William Howard Taft was eager to improve the quality of the federal judiciary, and upon the recommendation of Attorney General George W. Wickersham and a number of prominent New York attorneys, Hand was appointed to the federal District Court for Southern District of New York, the lowest level of the court system. Five years later, Hand was joined on this court by his cousin Augustus. During his tenure on the district court, he became a skilled trial judge and an expert on the intricacies of commercial and corporate law.

In 1912, while serving on the federal bench, Hand ran for, and lost, the position of chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. It was of dubious propriety for a sitting judge to seek an elective office, and Hand compounded this mistake by running as a Progressive (in the election that year, Hand supported Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency on the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party ticket). In so doing he incurred the wrath of the regular Republicans and their leader, Taft. Taft never forgave Hand his political apostasy, and during the 1920’s Taft, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, used his considerable influence to prevent Hand’s elevation to the High Court.

Hand’s judicial accomplishments were, however, at last recognized in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (including New York, Connecticut, and Vermont), replacing Judge Julius M. Mayer. During Hand’s tenure on the Second Circuit, he served with some of the most distinguished jurists in the nation. Thomas Walter Swan and Charles Edward Clark were both former deans of Yale Law School, and Jerome Frank headed the Securities and Exchange Commission during the New Deal. Clearly Hand’s greatest pleasure, though, was being joined once again by his cousin and closest friend, Augustus, on the same court in 1927.


(The entire section is 2258 words.)