One of the U.S. Supreme Court's most influential justices receives a fresh analysis emphasizing his service in the U.S. Civil War. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and records, Budiansky explores Holmes's famous and often dissenting opinions that would prove prophetic in securing freedom of speech, protecting the rights of criminal defendants, and ending the Court’s reactionary resistance to social and economic reforms.
Many scholars have recognized the [U.S. Civil] war’s critical influence on Holmes. Yet Budiansky, whose previous books include six on military history, renders Holmes’s war, and how it lodged in his psyche, as no writer has before ... More broadly, Budiansky’s is now the most engrossing of the major Holmes biographies. It vibrantly recounts the influence on his extraordinary public experiences of his extraordinary private ones ... Providing the fullest measure of Holmes’s life yet, Budiansky makes a sympathetic-to-Holmes and convincing case that the justice should not be dismissed based on the worst opinion he wrote.
Budiansky sets out to revive Holmes’s reputation and relevance as a model of intellectual humility for our polarized age. And his readable, lively and engaging biography is so successful that it persuaded me, a Holmes skeptic, to give the Yankee from Olympus a second look ... Today, when progressives, conservatives and libertarians are all turning to the courts to overturn the judgments of legislatures, and when Twitter mobs on the right and the left attack each other with the moralistic certainty that Holmes deplored, Holmes’s intellectual humility, and his willingness to question even his own deeply held premises are humbling and inspiring. And at a time when progressives and conservatives alike are so sure of their own premises that America is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, the 'skeptical humility,' as Budiansky puts it, that Holmes took from the war seems more elusive, and more urgently needed, than ever.
Budiansky’s Oliver Wendell Holmes is a lively, accessible book, retelling the story of its subject’s life and work for a generation that knows Holmes was important but not why. Yet this biography suffers from its refusal to grapple with the stubborn fact that Holmes was, and remains, a deeply contradictory figure ... Budiansky’s biography...self-consciously rejects critical studies of the justice over the past 40 years in favor of a worship that can verge on apologetics ... Budiansky, a prolific historian and journalist, devotes more than 50 pages to Holmes’s Civil War career ... These pages are exciting and well written, their subject presumably more to Budiansky’s taste than the mere work of the law ... Budiansky’s playing down of the contradictions that make Holmes infuriating and interesting is particularly mystifying because he has dived into the sea of Holmes’s voluminous writings and even contributed to Holmes scholarship ... Budiansky also does a fine job of telling the story of Holmes’s gradual move to embracing free speech under the influence of Judge Learned Hand and the Harvard Law School professor Zechariah Chafee ... And if Budiansky can’t quite explain why Holmes, whose scholarship showed that judges make law, got famous for arguing that judges shouldn’t make constitutional law, that isn’t entirely the author’s fault. Contradiction is always hard to resolve.