Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Holmes helped set the stage for the development of modern American jurisprudence.

Early Life

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was born in Boston on March 8, 1841. He was the son of the famous poet and writer Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who would influence him greatly, although their relationship would be strained. His mother, Amelia Jackson, came from a well-known New England family, members of which were involved in the region’s commerce, banking, and law; her father was a judge on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Young Oliver had a sister, Amelia, and a brother, Edward.

At age ten, Holmes began study at the Private Latin School. The headmaster, Mr. Epes S. Dixwell, a graduate of Harvard College, had been a legal apprentice in the law office of Holmes’s maternal grandfather. Holmes studied Latin, Greek, ancient history, and mathematics. In addition, he read on his own, having a strong interest in poetry and in the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. An important part of Holmes’s education took place outside his formal schooling. His father was at the center of the literary and intellectual life of New England. Dr. Holmes was well traveled, and he was well-known in Europe as well as in America. Through his father, Holmes became acquainted with literary figures, philosophers, historians, jurists, and scientists.

Holmes entered Harvard College in the fall of 1857. He was more than six feet tall and was extremely thin. His dark, straight hair dipped over his forehead and deep-set, blue-gray eyes. While in the army, he grew a flaring mustache which he maintained until his death.

At Harvard, Holmes’s interest in poetry, philosophy, and science grew, as did his intellectual curiosity. Like his father before him, he was the class poet. He also supported reformist causes such as antislavery and wrote articles for the Harvard Magazine. When the Civil War began, however, Holmes left Harvard and enlisted in the Fourth Battalion of Infantry. After he was graduated, Holmes received a commission as first lieutenant in the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers, which was later mustered into the United States Army.

His war service was brutal, bloody, and painful. Memories of the war strongly shaped his thought and especially his feeling about his government. Yet Holmes was proud of his service; according to Holmes, the war experience “touched with fire” the hearts of those who served. He often referred to his army days throughout his life and writings.

In the battle of Ball’s Bluff, on October 21, 1861, Holmes was hit in the stomach with a spent bullet and was knocked to the ground. He got up, urging his men forward, and was shot in the chest, the bullet passing through his body. His wound led to a long convalescence at home in Boston. In March, Holmes returned to his regiment and was soon promoted to captain. On September 17, 1862, he was shot through the neck, the bullet just missing the spinal cord and the carotid artery. After a period of convalescence, he again returned to active duty. He was to be wounded again: On May 3, 1863, in the battle of Chancellorsville, he was injured in the heel. From this point onward, Holmes suffered from battle fatigue.

On January 3, 1864, Holmes returned to his regiment as a lieutenant colonel. On January 29, he was assigned to the staff headquarters of General H. G. Wright, completing his term of enlistment in July of that year.

The fall of 1864 found Holmes at Harvard Law School. The Harvard law faculty reflected the fundamental traits of American jurists of the time. Legal thinkers were not given to searching for a unified philosophy on which to base decisions; rather, they sought to solve particular practical problems.

After he was graduated from law school in 1866, Holmes traveled to Europe. There, he exchanged ideas with some of the world’s great minds: Sir Frederick Pollock, Sir Henry Maine, John Stuart Mill, and Benjamin Jowett, among others. With Sir Frederick Pollock, Holmes kept a lifelong friendship.

Life’s Work

After his return from Europe, Holmes was admitted to the practice of law. He entered the law office of Robert Morse and then the office of Chandler, Shattuck and Thayer. Later, he joined forces with George O. Shattuck and William A. Munroe to form his own firm. On June 17, 1872, he married Fanny Bowditch Dixwell, who was the eldest daughter of his former schoolmaster, E. S. Dixwell.

Holmes’s early legal career included a time as editor of the American Law Review from 1870 to 1873. He also edited James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, published in 1873. His early writings show the further development of his philosophy of American law. He rejected the idea that law basically consists of logical deduction from given principles. Holmes saw the need for a philosophical structure as the basis for legal decisions, since logic itself rested on a philosophical base. Many of Holmes’s ideas came...

(The entire section is 2084 words.)