Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.

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Alger Hiss remembers Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Personal Information
Monday, March 8, 1841
Wednesday, March 6, 1935
Childhood Location 
Childhood Surroundings 
Associate Justice
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 
Length of Service 
29 years, 1 month, 4 days
Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.
The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Charles Sydney Hopkinson)

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.

Clerksort icon Law School Terms Clerked
James M. Nicely Harvard
John E. Lockwood
Laurence Curtis Harvard (1921) 1921
Leland B. Duer 1909
Lloyd H. Landau 1918
Mark DeWolfe Howe Harvard 1933
Robert M. Benjamin 1922
Robert W. Wales Harvard 1930
Shelton Hale
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Morrison Harvard (1917) 1919
Thomas Gardiner Corcoran Harvard (1926) 1926
Vaughn Miller 1917
W. Barton Leach Harvard (1924) 1924

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Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 04 September 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/justices/oliver_w_holmes_jr?page=1&order=title&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=title&sort=asc (last visited September 4, 2015).
"Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 4, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/justices/oliver_w_holmes_jr?page=1&order=title&sort=asc.