Learned Hand

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Learned Hand is most remembered for his restrained judicial style, for his belief that “the spirit of liberty means the spirit that is not so sure it is right.” Gerald Gunther’s new biography of Hand helps to explain the origins of the eminent jurist’s hallmark, pointing first to the long shadow cast by his successful attorney father, whose death when Hand was fourteen only lengthened that shadow. For the remainder of his life, Hand would feel himself to be an outsider, and his self-doubt was surely exacerbated by his marriage, during which his wife Frances was to devote less attention to him than to Dartmouth French professor Louis Dow, who for three decades took up residence at the Hands’ summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. Hand’s two missed opportunities for appointment to the Supreme Court, in 1930 and again in 1942, might have sealed him forever in a cocoon of skepticism.

Instead, Learned Hand continued to serve brilliantly on the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals until his death at age eighty-nine in 1961. Altogether, his judicial career spanned almost half a century, beginning with his appointment in 1909 as a federal district court judge and continuing with his subsequent elevation in 1924 to the Second Circuit. He contributed mightily to the development of the law and to the American scene with his written judicial opinions, which number near four thousand, and with his extrajudicial writings and activities. He helped to found the American Law Institute and to promote the institute’s publication of its Restatements of the law. He also helped to establish THE NEW REPUBLIC in 1914. Despite his belief that judges should not comment on events of the day—a belief that led him to forgo writing for the magazine upon assuming the bench—in the 1950’s he spoke out strongly against the evils of McCarthyism. The publication in 1952 of THE SPIRIT OF LIBERTY, Hand’s collected extrajudicial papers and addresses, won him a wide, if unbidden, popular audience.

Hand’s reputation outside the legal universe has perhaps waned in recent years, but Gerald Gunther’s judicious, balanced account of Hand’s life should help to revive interest in a figure who was the very embodiment of those qualities.