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The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes…

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind--and Changed… (2013)

by Thomas Healy

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Sometimes judges, even Supreme Court justices, change their minds. This is the story of one such change of mind, that of Oliver Wendell Holmes on the First Amendment. Well worth reading for its analysis of how that came about.
  lilithcat | Jun 25, 2015 |
The writings of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are the basis of contemporary interpretations and applications of freedom of speech, but it took many years for great minds to convince him of its value. This fascinating, insightful story chronicles the unfolding of Holmes’s change of heart and mind on the First Amendment. A remarkable, engaging work of intellectual and legal history. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
I bumped into Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. when TCM showed a film based on his life, The Magnificent Yankee. He was one of the few former Supreme Court Justices I knew and remains one of the most quoted Americans. I thought I would like to know more about him.

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind - And Changed the History of Free Speech in America by Thomas Healy was a great place to start. Though not a comprehensive biography of Justice Holmes, it certainly covers enough of Holmes early life to understand the type of man he was, and the context in which his mind and attitude were formed. Wounded three times during the Civil War while serving in the Union Army, once coming within a "sneeze" of death, Holmes attended Harvard and started his vocation as a lawyer.

Holmes was quite conservative in the early part of his career, even after ascending to the Supreme Court. However, he did not allow his general attitude towards the law to act as a filter in other areas of his life. Louis Brandeis, who would eventually join Holmes on the Supreme Court, and Harold Laski, were two of the most noted progressives of their day. Both remain two of the more noble heroes of the twentieth century.

Healy does a great job of creating a slow ascension to the pinnacle of Justice Holmes’s career - Abrams v. United States (1919). Our understanding and application of the First Amendment's guarantee of the freedom of speech. So much so, that at first I was quite shocked to learn of the very limited scope of the First Amendment prior to Abrams. Holmes dissent was joined only by Justice Brandeis. Holmes willingness to stand with such a small minority was even more courageous since he basically had to disagree with some of his previous rulings. To change course is always a bit frightening, as it requires an acknowledgment that one was wrong, or even more ominous, that our ability to remain on the path is outside our control. To face that decision from the heights of the Supreme Court must make it even more difficult.

Since the 1987 defeat of President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork, we seem more and more unwilling to nominate, let alone confirm, anyone who might actually have strong principles that guide them in their decision-making. Whether right or left, originalist or a constitutional evolutionist, nominees no longer seem to be selected by their beliefs, writings, careers, or abilities, but rather chosen with the hopes that they are so generic, no one can possibly object to them.

Rejecting men and women the caliber of Justice Holmes, Warren, Brandeis, Marshall and many other great minds to have served on the most esteemed bench, is I fear very dangerous. To safeguard the principle of our nation's birth that all men are created equal, is to place liberty at risk and not even know it. ( )
  lanewillson | Mar 30, 2015 |
Would have given it a 5-star review but for the painstaking laborious legal contexts and historical references for which a layperson like myself found difficult to muddle through. However, the author creates such suspense and excitement of the rebirth and ultimate redefinition of First Amendment rights that my desire to thoroughly understand it far outweighed my frustration of my obvious ignorance on the subject.

My advice to a layperson of U.S. Law who is considering reading this book is to familiarize yourself with the following beforehand:

1. Blackstonian view of free speech
2. Espionage Act of 1917
3. Sedition Act of 1798 and 1918
4. Bolshevist
5. Legal intent vs. lay intent as defined and understood in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Once I educated myself on the above and with a dictionary of legal terms/definitions at my side, I read this book with great enthusiasm. The history of changes in the "meaning" of our First Amendment rights as we know it today is fascinating and powerful! "The Great Dissent" has sharpened my critical thinking skills while provoking self-examination of my own limited and prejudiced understanding of a constitutional right that I unwittingly generalized and took for granted.
( )
1 vote iReadby | Apr 27, 2014 |
A well-written and timely reminder of the history of free speech and its importance. This book has valuable reminders for present times and even this benighted island. ( )
  iamamro | Feb 9, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805094563, Hardcover)

A gripping intellectual history reveals how conservative justice Oliver Wendell Holmes became a free-speech advocate and established the modern understanding of the First Amendment

The right to express one’s political views seems an indisputable part of American life. After all, the First Amendment proudly proclaims that Congress can make no law abridging the freedom of speech. But well into the twentieth century, that right was still an unfulfilled promise, with Americans regularly imprisoned merely for protesting government policies. Indeed, our current understanding of free speech comes less from the First Amendment itself than from a most unlikely man: the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. A lifelong conservative, he disdained all individual rights. Yet in 1919, it was Holmes who wrote a court opinion that became a canonical statement for free speech as we know it.

Why did Holmes change his mind? That question has puzzled historians for almost a century. Now, with the aid of newly discovered letters and memos, the law professor Thomas Healy reconstructs in vivid detail Holmes’s journey from free-speech skeptic to First Amendment hero. It is the story of a remarkable behind-the-scenes campaign by a group of progressives to bring a legal icon around to their way of thinking—and a deeply touching human narrative of an old man saved from loneliness and despair by a few unlikely young friends.

Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, The Great Dissent is intellectual history at its best, revealing how free debate can alter the life of a man and the legal landscape of an entire nation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:34 -0400)

Based on newly discovered letters and memos, this riveting scholarly history of the conservative justice who became a free-speech advocate and established the modern understanding of the First Amendment reconstructs his journey from free-speech skeptic to First Amendment hero.… (more)

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