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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was born on March 8, 1841 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Oliver W. Holmes, Sr., was a famous physician and writer, well known within and outside the state. Holmes Sr., a professor of medicine at the prestigious Harvard University, also wrote novels, poems and many humorous essays. Amelia Jackson, his mother, was among the notable figures within Boston, who supported the abolition of slavery and her support for the movement greatly influenced her son's involvement. The young boy grew up as an avid reader, loving literature in all its various forms of prose, poetry, novels; a clear influence from the father. Holmes grew up in a privileged environment under influence from prominent members of their society as a result of the family's social and political connections. He like his father went to private schools in Boston.
With much interest in literature, he started writing short poems and essays at an early age; nurturing writing skills that played essential role in penning fluent legal opinions and reviews later in life. Literary skills earned him the position of "editor of the Harvard magazine". Holmes, Jr., did not find the curriculum taught at the schools to be satisfactory was accused many times of harboring disrespect to his professors. At the age of about 20 years, Holmes Jr., joined training for the civil war in the year 1861 after graduation from college. The young soldier was not sent to the front but first received formal training about weaponry and strategies in war; in the "twentieth Massachusetts infantry regiment".
The war experiences left a deep impression on his mind, a fact he always acknowledged in years after the war. In spite of the many challenges and problems he underwent as a soldier, Holmes fondly described his days in the regiment in his public speech in 1884, "In our youth our hearts were touched with fire", paying tribute to the fallen colleagues. Holmes was wounded at least three times during the war in three different battles. In addition to the sustained physical injuries, he also suffered bouts of illness which he survived. He rose up the ranks of the in the "twentieth Massachusetts infantry" becoming the captain, later serving among the staff of the general Horatio Wright. After feeling he had served his duty within the civil war, Holmes decided to call it quits; preferring not to extend his service after his term had expired in 1964.
After leaving the civil war and not sure of what to do next, he decided to join the "Harvard Law School". Law as a profession did not seem desirable at first, but the studies interested him very much. Holmes fully immersed himself into studying law; a habit that was pivotal for his later success in the Supreme Court. He nevertheless had little inclination towards private practice. Holmes was admitted to the bar of Massachusetts after passing the mandatory oral examination in 1867, after which he practiced within Boston, for a period of fourteen years. Much of his time was spent in legal scholarship, wring article and reviews on legal matters. Finding private practice a bit mundane and dull, Holmes also worked on editions of "Kent commentaries on American Law", a task that took almost four years, in addition to being editor of the "American Law Review" in 1870. He wrote the well regarded and esteemed book, "The Common Law", which was published in 1881.
Summaries of many of the legal views and opinions developed by lawyers in the preceding years formed the bulk of the book. In it he projected his now popular perspective and rationale on law, that its practice and experience formed the basis of judicial decisions rather than the fundamental legal theories. This standpoint that such decisions were mainly drawn from outside the frameworks of law, made his contribution to legal realism, a concept developed much later, of profound impact. In "The Common Law", Holmes questioned much of the historical basis for the "Anglo- American Jurisprudence", with the view that it was outdated and the legal doctrines rather illogical for application in the "new societal conditions".
During this time Holmes had gotten engaged, and married a lady he had known from their childhood days in 1872. Fanny Dixwell was a daughter of a Boston businessman and proprietor of one of the private schools in the area attended by Holmes. The couple had a successful marriage in spite of the fact that they lived childless and had to adopt one of their relative's children. Their marriage endured till her death in 1929.
A teaching post at the law school in Harvard was extended to him, just after the publication of the book and after negotiations; Holmes accepted the full time professorship at the college. Resignation from this post after only one semester raised some frustrations from the staff and students, following his appointment to Massachusetts's highest court; the supreme judicial court of the state. As a democrat, he was chosen to the post after expiry of the then republican governor in 1882. Holmes loved researching cases and reviewing them, a feat that made the job enjoyable. His intellectual capacity and immense knowledge on legal issues endeared him to many, rising up to the post of the chief justice in 1899, within the state.
In 1896, he wrote a "dissenting opinion" on the "Vegelahn v. Guntner" case, in which holms provided support for rights of workers and their unions to strike. His view was that they had the right to organize strike and demonstrations against their employers, as a "legitimate and effective mean of bargaining over their wages," and conditions of work. The court nevertheless gave the ruling under Justice Allen that the union had hamper rights of the employer in hiring workers and found it guilty of international tort. After twenty years of service to the court, Holmes was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. He served for thirty years in the Supreme Court; a time longer than anyone else. He was later named by his fellow jurists, "the great dissenter", because of his many disagreeing viewpoints on cases, and the eloquent way he expressed and presented his perspective. Judges he served with include Louis D. Brandeis, Horace Gray and Benjamin Cardozo.
The 1905 case "Lochner v. New York", Holmes declared that the broad propositions of the law were not tangible in deciding complex cases. Justice Peckham decision on the case that the law barring the workers' hours did not establish legitimate use of "police powers", based on the prevailing legal principles, provoked Holmes who wrote his dissenting view arguing that judges should not endeavor to decide on whether a given law is good policy or not. Holmes, in giving dissenting opinion in the 1915 case "Frank v. Mangum", and in 1923's "Moore v. Dempsey", confronted the then prevalent problem of "judicial lynching" of both the Jews and black minority groups "by hostile courts"; particularly in the south. In his opinion he interjected in a court divided over the case that it was their duty "to declare lynch law as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death."
In the famous 1919 case, "Schenk vs. U.S", he came up with the doctrine famously referred to as the "clear and present danger". He did this in relation to the "World War 1 sedition act" and free speech. In his famous ruling Holmes stated the test on whether any given "speech fell outside" the provisions of the first amendment would be; "whether the words are used in such circumstances are of such a nature as to create clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that congress has aright to prevent." the supreme court's decision to deny a Hungarian immigrant US citizenship on the grounds of her being a pacifist met disagreement from the fiery Holmes defiantly presented his standpoint to the jurists. He later added that the principle of free thought, as presented by the constitution, related to freedom for even "the thoughts that we hate." Under chief justice Edward white, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of his opinion. Associate justices at time included Willis van Devanter, James McReynolds, Joseph McKenna and Louis Brandeis.
During his exemplary thirty years of service in the Supreme Court, Holmes put pen to paper wrote 873 opinions, making him "the most prolific judge" in the history of the court. While many of the judges and colleagues had preference to basing their opinions and decisions on the general principles outlined by common law, Holmes greatly believed the judge had had the obligation to be as precise as possible, taking into considerations of other factors especially social changes, in making their ruling. He exhorted his peers to interpret the constitution in a progressive manner, rather than being bound to legal principles that may have been rendered illogical in some legal situations. On the twelfth day of January 1932, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., retired from the United States Supreme court, at the old age 90 and was succeeded by Benjamin Cardozo. He passed away on March 5, 1935, two days of from celebrating his 94th birthday.