A top-notch new biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935).
Turning the influential judge’s life into a page-turner seems a highly difficult task, but journalist and historian Budiansky (Code Warriors: NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union, 2016, etc.) succeeds admirably. The son of a well-known physician and an abolitionist, Holmes dropped out of Harvard to enlist in 1861. During three years of Civil War service, he suffered terribly and almost died. The war eliminated his youthful ideals but may have contributed to his judicial philosophy. Recovering from injuries, he completed law school and launched a legal career, impressing colleagues with his charm and legal scholarship. His writing is still quoted, and his briefs were more succinct than most. Appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1882 and U.S. Supreme Court in 1902, Holmes became a major figure in overturning the traditional view that law stems from authority—codes, the Bible, the Constitution—in favor of legal realism, which interprets law through its effect on society. Although still known as the “great dissenter” (not exactly a mark of success), his decisions made him popular among progressives and provided legal support for economic regulation and the expansion of personal freedom. Conservatives may cringe at his quip, “I really like paying taxes. With them, I buy civilization,” but Budiansky emphasizes that Holmes’ vaunted liberalism was evident only in his legal decisions and sometimes not even there. An abolitionist before the war, he showed little sympathy for African-Americans afterward. He opposed women’s suffrage and despised labor unions, socialists, and other movements that claimed to oppose injustice. Yet, a man of “skeptical temperament to the core…he never mistook his own views for eternal truth.” Absent a clear danger, he maintained that obnoxious opinions deserved the same rights as his own. This remains a minority view in America, and legal realism, in decline since the 1960s, shows no signs of reviving.
An entirely fascinating biography of one of America’s most important legal minds.