OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES - A Life in War, Law and Ideas - 10 weeks
S 2020


OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES - A Life in War, Law and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Boston Brahmin, a thrice wounded civil war veteran with the military mustache, the image of a hero from central casting, and that is before you consider his incredible accomplishments as a scholar, a judge and a Supreme Court Justice for over three decades. Our core book is OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES - A Life in War, Law and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky.

We will look at his pioneering early legal scholarship in the study and understanding of the common law, evolving and not staid, to meet the changing needs of society.

In his passionate dissents such as the case of Abrams v. United States, we will study Holmes’ groundwork for the modern constitutional protection of freedom of speech. And a year later, writing for the Supreme Court’s majority in Missouri v. Holland, we will consider Holmes introduction of the concept of a living Constitution. He writes that this Constitution should be properly interpreted “in the light of our whole experience, and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.”

Our core book will provide an interesting road-map as it drawing on many previously unpublished letters and records, and offers a full portrait of this pivotal American figure, whose zest for life, wit, and intellect left a profound legacy in law and Constitutional rights.  He was also an inspiring example of how to lead a meaningful life in a world of uncertainty and upheaval. 


Weekly Topics

1    Prologue; the influence on Holmes of his father, physician, poet and polymath.  (Pg 1-47)

2    His New England boyhood; first year of military service in the Harvard Regiment during the Civil War.  (Pg 48-93)

3    The Battle of Antietam; life in "the wilderness;" he leaves the army a changed man after his 3-year enlistment expires.  (Pg 93-138)

4    Graduation with a law degree, tour of Europe; his determination to blaze his own way in law from the start; publication of The Common Law.  (Pg 138-178)

5    Appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and its overwhelming workload; his wife Fanny makes life poetry for him; 1891, first of several cases on economic regulation and the rights of labor.  (Pg 179-228)

6    Behind-the-scenes life on the bench - not always collegial; finding his judicial voice; his flirtations; 1902, appointment to the US Supreme Court; opinions written with speed and brevity, which causes problems; his love of the job.  (Pg 229-282)

7    Cases that challenge labor & antitrust laws stir up a hornet's nest; tensions with Roosevelt; dinner parties in their newly remodeled Washington home.  (Pg 283-322)

8    Taft completely remakes the Court, including Edward White as Chief Justice; Holmes in dissent.  (Pg 322-365)

9    Relationships with Learned Hand and other associates; the issue of free speech; life on the Taft Court. (Pg 366-419)

10  His last years on the Court; life in retirement; epilogue (Pg 420-461)


Budiansky, Stephen; Oliver Wendell Holmes:  A Life of War, Law and Ideas; W. W. Norton & Co., 2019.