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 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

American legal scholar, author and jurist, best known for his tenure as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1902-1932). Holmes is considered one of the giants of American law. Not just because he wrote so well, but also because he wrote so much, and for so long. A lawyer seeking a quote from Holmes is never left wanting. Even the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C. bears his writing, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was born in Boston on March 8, 1841 into an affluent and literary family. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a prominent physician, a professor of medicine at Harvard, and an author of novels, verse, and humorous essays. Holmes attended private schools in Boston and then, like his father, Harvard University. Young Holmes was not overly impressed with the Harvard of that time, finding the curriculum stale and boring, so he exercised his literary talents as editor of "Harvard Magazine," and in numerous essays. After graduating from Harvard, Holmes began his Civil War service in the Union Army, where he was wounded three times in battle. Though he was later to glorify wartime service, he declined to renew his term of service when it expired. Holmes apparently, and justifiably, felt that he had done more than his duty, and had survived one battle too many to continue tempting fate. Holmes returned to Boston, decided to study law, and entered Harvard Law School in 1864. Though at first uncertain that law would be his profession, he soon became immersed in study and decided that the law would be his life's work. He committed himself to the study of law, but not necessarily to the private practice. After passing the required oral examination, Holmes was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1867. For the next fourteen years he practiced law in Boston. But his love for legal scholarship, rather than the mundane daily practice, became evident during this period. He worked on a new edition of "Kent's Commentaries," a mammoth endeavor that took some four years, and became the editor of the "American Law Review," a commercial legal periodical. Holmes married Fanny Dixwell in 1872. They had known each other since Holmes was about ten years old; as she was the daughter of the proprietor of the private school he attended. Their marriage was to be childless, and lasted until her death in 1929. Holmes's most famous work, "The Common Law," published in 1881 grew out of a series of twelve lectures he was invited to deliver, which required that he explain the fundamentals of American law. Shortly after publication of "The Common Law," Holmes was offered a post teaching law at Harvard. He accepted the professorship, but after teaching only one semester, he resigned to accept an appointment to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the state's highest court. Holmes served on the Supreme Judicial Court for twenty years, eventually becoming its Chief Justice. He loved the work, the legal research and the "writing up" of cases. Holmes enjoyed the work and found it easy. He could see immediately to the heart of an issue, and his intellectual powers were far superior to his colleagues. Though he was happy on the Supreme Judicial Court, he still desired greater fame and challenge. The opportunity for ultimate professional advancement came in 1902, when Holmes was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the United States Supreme Court. His appointment might never have happened, except that Roosevelt and Holmes were both friends with Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, who persuaded Roosevelt that Holmes was favorable towards Roosevelt's progressive policies. Roosevelt would live to rue the appointment however, after Holmes participated in striking down some of Roosevelt's progressive initiatives. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would serve on the Supreme Court longer than any other person up to that date, thirty years. He was called "The Great Dissenter" because he was often at odds with his fellow justices and was capable of eloquently expressing his dissents. Louis Brandeis often joined him in dissents, and their views often became the majority opinion in a few years' time. Holmes resigned due to ill health in 1932, at age ninety, at which point he was the oldest justice ever to have served on the Court. He died in 1935, 2 days short of his 94th birthday.

Bio by: Edward Parsons


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find A Grave Memorial 494
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr (8 Mar 1841–6 Mar 1935), Find A Grave Memorial no. 494, citing Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .