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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes the younger, (March 8, 1841 - March 6, 1935) was an American jurist noted for his progressive decisions, often contrary to that of other judges of his time. He was called The Great Dissenter.

Holmes was born in Boston, the son of the prominent writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.. He graduated from Harvard in 1861 and then joined the United States Army in the American Civil War. He saw much action, and suffered wounds at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Antietam and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. He was mustered out in 1864 as a brevet Lieutenant-Colonel.

One Civil War story is well known: In July, 1864, the Confederates got north of Washington, D.C., and Abraham Lincoln came out to see the troops. At six foot four, with his stovepipe hat adding eight inches to his height, Lincoln stood on the parapet, watching smoke puffs from Confederate snipers, seemingly unafraid, even when an officer three feet from him was dropped by a Confederate bullet. A 23-year old Oliver Wendall Holmes saw this foolhardy target sticking up, and not realizing it was the President of the United States, shouted, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!" Lincoln promptly obeyed.

Holmes then returned to Harvard to study law, being admitted to the bar in 1866, and went into practice in Boston.

In 1870 he became editor of the American Law Review. In 1881 he published the first edition of his well regarded book The Common Law. In 1882 he became both a professor at Harvard Law School and a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In 1899 he was appointed chief justice of the state court. He became known for his innovative, well reasoned decisions, balancing property rights with rule by the majority, with the latter taking precedence over the former. He was one of the first to recognize workers' right to organize trade unions as long as no violence or coercion was involved, contrary to some earlier decisions by others who had argued that organized labor was by nature illegal.

In 1902 he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, where he was known for his progressive opinions. (His decision in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), where he justified compulsory sterilization of the retarded with the words "[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough," is a notable exception.) He served until January 12, 1932, when his fellow brethren on the court, citing his advanced age (Holmes, at 90, was the oldest serving justice in the Court's history), hesitantly requested that he step down, which he complied with. He died in Washington, D.C. in 1935.

The 1951 Hollywood motion picture "The Magnificent Yankee" was based on a play about his life. Holmes famously ruled that professional baseball could not be subject to antitrust law because it was not interstate commerce.


  • We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. . . we have felt, we still feel the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.
  • Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.
  • Most people think mostly what they want to think the majority of the time.
  • I have no respect for the passion for equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy.
  • The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye: the more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.
  • The word is the skin of living thought.
  • The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.
  • The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre...
  • The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, but the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi sovereign that can be identified...
  • [A] Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory... It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar, or novel, and even shocking, ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States.
  • General propositions do not decide concrete cases.

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