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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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Would have given it a 5-star review but for the painstaking laborious legal contexts and historical references for which a layperson like myself found difficult to muddle through.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.
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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 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
After reading the first chapter of this book, I wasn't quite sure if this was going to be one of those books where the author tries to be too clever and just confuses his reader, but then the book quickly became engrossing and very readable. This is an excellent book to read for someone - like this reviewer - who is halfway through law school and, as a result, has a better understanding of how law is actually made. Mr. Healy does an excellent job of revealing how Justice Holmes's personality and the events of the early twentieth century combined to change the world. Reading this book nearly a century after the great dissent, it's hard to imagine how the conception of free speech was so different, but readers of this book will have a much greater appreciation of the evolution of the law. ( )
1 vote krepitch | Aug 28, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Going into this book, I did not know much about the topics which were covered. O.W. Holmes was a mystery to me. I knew who he was, but not 'who' he was and what he stood for. I did not know much of the background on our right to free speech. I mean, how entertaining can learning about free speech be, right? Well as it turns out, it can be quite entertaining.

Thomas Healy has done a great job with this subject. He has fleshed out who Oliver Wendell Holmes was, which is important in relation to the story and to his fateful decisions he makes. The cast of characters is not overwhelming and the tangents and opinions I believe were kept to a minimum. His history of free speech I thought was well thought out and gave me a good understanding of what the legal community thought of it at the time. His sources he used seem to have been chosen with care. His writing is clear and concise which is all one can ask for.

Is this the greatest work of non-fiction you will read all year? Probably not, after all it still is not on the most exciting topic regarding not one of the most exciting figures history has produced. But it isn't all bad either and that is quite the credit to Mr. Healy. He took a potential lame duck and turned it into a prized fowl. ( )
1 vote Schneider | Aug 13, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Legislative history--the process of determining what a law was intended to mean--is generally very dull stuff: reading memos, committee reports, and testimony transcripts is only fun for the first few hours. Healy, though, teaches law (at Seton Hall University), so he both knows how to do that sort of research, and how to make the work engaging.

Which is fortunate, because his subject is one of our most important laws: the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees our rights of expression, religion, and peaceable assembly. While this law has been on the books since 1791, it was only in 1919 that we began to understand it as actually limiting the government's ability to prosecute people for what they say. That we can now disagree openly about government policy or protest against its actions is directly due to a change in the way Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, interpreted the words.

This book, unfortunately, comes too late. By recounting one judge's evolution, occurring during the high communist paranoia after World War I, Healy shows the importance of this debate--and the importance of standing against governmental tyranny, something sorely lacking in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when fear of terrorism and the resulting Patriot Act chilled discourse; something we still struggle with as the NSA vacuums us every scrap of electronic data; something we traded for a false feeling of security. Holmes' courage--to change his mind, to stand against the majority, and to support freedom over fear--should stand as an inspiration for us all, and Healy presents it as a readable political thriller. This should be required reading in high school civics classes.
1 vote EverettWiggins | Jul 30, 2013 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:32:52 -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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