Who Was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.?
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the son of writer, educator and doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, fought on the Union side in the American Civil War for three years. In 1864, he began attending Harvard Law School and later taught as a professor. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Holmes to the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes retired in 1931, at the age of 91.
Born on March 8, 1841, in Boston, Massachusetts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. served on the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 30 years. He grew up in affluent surroundings as the son of the famed author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. His mother, Amelia Lee Jackson, was a supporter of the abolitionist movement.
Holmes was educated in private schools before enrolling at Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1857. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted in the Union Army. Holmes served in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an unit that was nicknamed "Harvard's Army." During the war, he suffered injuries during battle three times.
In 1864, Holmes began his studies at Harvard Law School. He completed his degree in 1866 and passed the bar the following year, and soon began working as a lawyer.
Legal Scholar and Judge
In addition to his work in private practice, Holmes wrote numerous articles and essays on the law. He served as the editor of the American Law Review from 1870 to 1873. Returning to Harvard, Holmes also lectured on legal issues. In 1881, he published The Common Law, which was a collection of his lectures and essays on the topic. Holmes joined the faculty at the Harvard Law School in 1882, but he only taught for one semester.
In 1883, Holmes was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He became the court's chief justice in 1899. Considered a leading judicial figure in the nation, Holmes would only be chief justice for a short time before he received a call to a higher post.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice
President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Holmes to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902. During his time on the court, he earned the nickname "the Great Dissenter" for how often he opposed his fellow justices in their opinions. Holmes objected the finding in Lochner v. New York (1905), which removed a 60-hour limit on bakers' workweek.
Holmes helped set the standard for speech protected by the First Amendment with his decision in Schenck v. United States (1919). In this case, the court refused to overturn the conviction of Charles Schenck, an antiwar activist. Schenck had distributed pamphlets against U.S. involvement in World War I and had been found guilty of violating the Espionage Act. Holmes wrote in the court's majority opinion that each case must be examined to determine "whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
That same year, Holmes wrote one of his most famous dissenting opinions in the case of Abrams v. United States. The court upheld the convictions of several Russian-born political radicals under the Espionage Act. This time, Holmes thought that this case failed to meet to the "clear and present danger" measure. He wrote that "the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."
Retirement and Death
In January 1932, Holmes retired from the Supreme Court after nearly 30 years of service. He died on March 6, 1935, in Washington, D.C.—just two days shy of his 94th birthday. Holmes is remembered as one of the court's most eloquent and outspoken justices.
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