Who is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr?

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  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is one of America’s best known judges to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Known for his sharp writing and speaking abilities and his rather impressive walrus mustache, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is widely referenced and quoted in discussions about American law. Often called “The Great Dissenter,” he is known for sometimes contradictory opinions that formed his own philosophy on law and legal proceedings.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., born in 1841 was the son of a well-known poet and philosopher. As a youth, Holmes was exposed to the best private education in Boston, and raised in a highly literary family. At Harvard, Holmes was disappointed with his education, and frequently wrote critical articles as editor of the Harvard Magazine.

Though poised for a well-placed career, Homes chose to join the army after graduation, and served on the Union side of the Civil War. He fought in the bloody battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Perhaps his first famous quote comes from this era, when he reportedly shouted “Get down, you fool!” at President Lincoln, who was being an obvious target while visiting troops during the Battle of Fort Stevens. Oliver Wendell Holmes suffered three serious wounds and numerous illnesses, and completed his service in 1864.


After the war, Holmes occupied himself with starting a family and attending Harvard Law School. He practiced law for nearly twenty years, and contributed to many prominent law journals. In 1881, he published his famous work, The Common Law, based on a series of lectures that he had given at universities. Shortly after its publication, Oliver Wendell Holmes was nominated to the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, where he served as a justice for twenty years.

Under the advice of Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Holmes to the United States Supreme Court in 1902, a decision he would later regret. Holmes had spent his career developing a clear theory about the importance and jurisdiction of federal law, and would often argue against Roosevelt’s proposals. He supported the formation of non-violent trade unions, and generally supported the practice and protection of free speech. Oliver Wendell Holmes is considered one of the biggest supporters of judicial restraint, or allowing the law to decide rather than basing rulings on the personal opinions of judges.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. retired from the Supreme Court at age 90, in 1932. By the time of his death in 1935, Holmes had contributed much of the foundation of modern constitutional law in America. His extensive writings are considered some of the greatest legal texts of his time, and are widely studied and reproduced among the legal profession. Through his contributions as a lawyer, judge, and law theories, Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. is considered a giant in the American practice of law.


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