THE JUSTICE FROM BEACON HILL by Liva Baker

THE JUSTICE FROM BEACON HILL

The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Baker (Miranda, 1983, etc.) presents a highly readable, scholarly biography of the distinguished and enigmatic jurist. Holmes's life prior to his elevation to the Supreme Court in 1902 was largely an insular and intellectual one, occupied with the arcana of legal scholarship and devoid of events of great drama (with the important exception of the Civil War, in which Holmes received wounds at Ball's Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville). Nonetheless, Baker demonstrates that Holmes made enduring contributions to American legal thought during this period, first as a Harvard professor and author of the classic The Common Law, and later as a Massachusetts judge. Baker shows how the horrors of the Civil War shaped Holmes's pessimistic, skeptical, and highly rationalistic view of human nature, how his background as heir to the intellectual and cultural legacy of Puritanism made him an autocrat who ``didn't believe much in rights,'' and how his vast legal scholarship did not prevent him from rejecting hoary common- law rules. The author discusses Holmes's great (and infamous) opinions for the Supreme Court with intelligence and objectivity- -Giles v. Davis, in which Holmes upheld Alabama restrictions on the voting rights of black Americans; his free-speech dissents, which, although articulating the basis of modern free-speech jurisprudence, Holmes privately dismissed as upholding the ``right of a donkey to talk drool''; his notorious decision in Buck v. Bell, in which he upheld the sterilization of an allegedly feeble- minded woman with the declaration that ``three generations of imbeciles are enough.'' Although some of Holmes's decisions shock modern sensibilities, Baker rightly finds value in his careful and intellectually honest judicial restraint, even regarding legislation he disliked. A fine, thoughtful biography of one of American legal history's most formidable intellects. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: July 3rd, 1991
ISBN: 0-06-016629-0
Page count: 784pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1991




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