August 29, 1809

Oliver Wendell Holmes Born in Cambridge

PRIMARY SOURCE: Poem, 1830
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On this day in 1809, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge. The man who coined the phrase "Boston Brahmin," he was a true member of that class, and he entertained the nation with poems, stories, and essays about its peculiar ways. A contemporary and friend of Hawthorne, Emerson, and Longfellow, Holmes was a guiding light behind the Atlantic Monthly, the journal that published many of his columns and verses. But Holmes's greatest legacy may have been his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who survived three serious injuries during his service in the Union Army to become a distinguished legal scholar. A justice of the United States Supreme Court for 30 years, Holmes, Jr. had perhaps the greatest legal mind in the nation's history.

The "Great Dissenter," as Holmes was called for the minority opinions he frequently wrote, opposed much of the progressive economic legislation Roosevelt's administration proposed.

Oliver Wendell Holmes grew up in Cambridge. His father was the son of a Congregational minister and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. The family was proud of its ties to such old Massachusetts families as the Quincys and the Bradstreets. Young Holmes lived next door to "the college," as Harvard was called in his house. He followed family tradition, graduating with the Class of 1829.

The next year, when he was only 21, a poem first scribbled on bit of paper brought him sudden fame. When he read that the USS Constitution was about to be scrapped for parts, he wrote "Old Ironsides," a lament for the city's and the nation's loss. Printed in a local newspaper in September of 1830, just as Boston was celebrating its 200th birthday, the poem aroused the public to the point where the Navy agreed to preserve the historic battleship. Papers all around the country printed the poem, and copies of it were distributed in the streets. Oliver Wendell Holmes became a household name.

Holmes coined the phrase "Boston Brahmin," and he was a true member of that class. He entertained the nation with poems, stories, and essays about the city's peculiar ways. In "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," he wrote that "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system," a phrase that came to stand for the whole city. 

Printed in a local newspaper in September of 1830, just as Boston was celebrating its 200th birthday, the poem aroused the public to the point where the Navy agreed to preserve the historic battleship.

A man of many talents, he had a distinguished 35-year career as a doctor, author on medical issues, and professor and then dean at the Harvard Medical School. His lectures on poets made him popular on the Boston-area lyceum circuit. But it was as a writer that he achieved national prominence. He wrote like the brilliant conversationalist he was, commenting on society with what one biographer called the "whimsically comprehending talk of a boardinghouse sage." His writing, like his life, was strongly rooted in New England, but it had a universal appeal to readers in a romantic age.

The horror of the Civil War ensured that his eldest son would not be a romantic. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (called Wendell) grew up knowing everyone in Boston's literary and reform societies. He spent his college years at Harvard probing the meaning of the universe with friend and fellow truth-seeker William James. But the harsh realities of the war convinced him to make his "own universe livable" by the study and practice of law.

He wrote like the brilliant conversationalist he was, commenting on society with what one biographer called the "whimsically comprehending talk of a boardinghouse sage."

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1866, the younger Holmes was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. He spent the next 14 years in a Boston law office. A man of keen intellect, he found himself more interested in legal scholarship than daily practice, and in 1881 he published The Common Law, a brilliant treatise on the fundamentals of American law. Within a year he had been appointed a professor at Harvard Law School and then a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Holmes spent 20 years on the SJC, eventually rising to Chief Justice. He earned a reputation for innovative, well-reasoned decisions. In his opinions he followed the principle that he had first stated in The Common Law— "the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." He rejected moral absolutes and rigid interpretation of legal precedent, insisting that the law has always evolved with society. Serving on the SJC at a time of rapid change in American society, he faced a variety of contemporary issues.

In his opinions he followed the principle that he had first stated in The Common Law— "the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience."

In 1902 Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge persuaded Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Holmes to the U.S. Supreme Court, a choice TR later had reason to regret. The "Great Dissenter," as Holmes was called for the minority opinions he frequently wrote, opposed much of the progressive economic legislation Roosevelt's administration proposed. The constitution," Holmes insisted, "does not embody a particular economic theory." A staunch defender of the First Amendment, he was a lonely voice for free speech during the Red Scare.

Holmes served as a Supreme Court Justice for 30 years, stepping down reluctantly at the age of 90. When he died in March of 1935, the whole nation mourned. His close friend and colleague Justice Louis Brandeis said simply, "And so the great man is gone."

If You Go

The Boston State House was described by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. as "the Hub of the solar system." His son Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. served on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, housed in Boston's John Adams Courthouse.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

The New York Times obituary, March 6, 1935.

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).

The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes, by Liva Baker (Harper Collins, 1991).

Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, by Sheldon M. Novick (Little Brown, 1989).

Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 5 and Supplement One.

Themes

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