Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.

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Alger Hiss remembers Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Personal Information
Born 
Monday, March 8, 1841
Died 
Wednesday, March 6, 1935
Childhood Location 
Massachusetts
Childhood Surroundings 
Massachusetts
Position 
Associate Justice
Seat 
3
Nominated By 
Roosevelt T.
Commissioned on 
Thursday, December 4, 1902
Sworn In 
Monday, December 8, 1902
Left Office 
Tuesday, January 12, 1932
Reason For Leaving 
Retired
Length of Service 
29 years, 1 month, 4 days
Home 
Massachusetts
Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.
The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Charles Sydney Hopkinson)
Biography 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. came from an illustrious family and his contributions throughout his life added distinction to an otherwise distinguished group. Holmes graduated from Harvard and was selected class poet in 1861. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Massachusetts Twentieth Volunteers. Holmes was wounded three times in the war. He carried one of those bullets in his body until his death at the age of 93.

He left military service as a captain and then return to Harvard, this time to study law. After graduation from the Law School, he entered private practice but soon returned to his alma mater to teach constitutional law, lecture, and write. At 40, he published his treatise, The Common Law. Holmes found academic life incomplete, however, so he accepted appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Court where he served for 20 years.

President Theodore Roosevelt thought Holmes's views compatible with his own, so he nominated him in 1902 for a position on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed the appointment without objection two days later.

Holmes was a key player on four major courts: Fuller, White, Taft and Hughes. In 25 of his 29 years, Holmes never missed a session of the Court. He walked from his home to the Court daily, a distance of some 2 1/2 miles. By endurance alone, Holmes qualifies as the Cal Ripkin Jr. of the nation's highest bench.

By temperament, Holmes asserted a pragmatic view of the law. He balanced his deep skepticism in human nature against the stabilizing rule of law. Yet he treasured liberty in the same spirit as the playwright Robert Bolt envisioned in Sir Thomas More, who was executed in 1535. More, like Holmes, put his trust in the law. His opinions will endure largely because he kept them short and studded many with vivid phrases. This left little work for his law clerks. One of them, Alger Hiss, spoke about his responsibilities when he worked for Holmes in 1929.

Near the end of his long career, Holmes reflected on life and work and the final moments which he knew were soon approaching.

Clerkships 
Clerk Law Schoolsort icon Terms Clerked
Charles Denby, Jr. Harvard 1925
Robert W. Wales Harvard 1930
H. Chapman Rose Harvard 1931
Mark DeWolfe Howe Harvard 1933
James H. Rowe Harvard 1934
Augustin Derby Harvard (1906)
Irving S. Olds Harvard (1910) 1910
Francis B. Biddle Harvard (1911)
Stanley Morrison Harvard (1917) 1919
Laurence Curtis Harvard (1921) 1921
W. Barton Leach Harvard (1924) 1924
Arthur E. Sutherland Harvard (1925) 1927
Thomas Gardiner Corcoran Harvard (1926) 1926
Alger Hiss Harvard (1929) 1929

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Cite this Page
Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 11 September 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/justices/oliver_w_holmes_jr?page=1&order=field_education_value&sort=asc>.
Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/justices/oliver_w_holmes_jr?page=1&order=field_education_value&sort=asc (last visited September 11, 2014).
"Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 11, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/justices/oliver_w_holmes_jr?page=1&order=field_education_value&sort=asc.