Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes (Illustration) American History Social Studies Trials Law and Politics

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. - who lived from 1841-1935 - was a highly respected U.S. Supreme Court Justice.  He was the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr (a famous writer and physician) and Amelia Lee Jackson Holmes (an abolitionist).

Although good friends for many years, Holmes did not marry his future wife, Fanny Dixwell Homes, until he was 35 and she was 32. It was, reportedly, a good marriage. 

Fanny suffered a severe attack of rheumatic fever in July of 1872 - about a month after their wedding - and was ill for a long time.  When she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. Fanny - who was very reclusive - reportedly said that she looked "like an abandoned farm in Maine."   In later life, she did not like to be photographed, so there are few pictures of her after 1872.

President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Holmes to the Supreme Court in 1902.  The nominating document - dated December 2, 1902 - survives and indicates Holmes was slated to replace Justice Horace Gray (who had resigned).

Known for his wit and to-the-point writing, Holmes remained a Supreme Court Justice until he was nearly 91 years old.  No other Justice - to date - has served on the bench while reaching that age.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, where he also served as a professor for a period of time, Holmes had earlier fought in America's Civil War (for the Union side).  He had been wounded, in separate battles, and kept his officer's uniform (plus other relices and a scrapbook) until the day he died (on March 6, 1935). 

Holmes gave his papers to Harvard.  Some of them - including photographs of his family - have been digitized and are available online.

Not everyone agrees that Holmes was a great man and a great jurist.  When Justice Elena Kagan referred to him as her model of judicial restraint - during her 2010 confirmation hearing - Jeffrey Rosen (a George Washington University law professor) - commented (in the New York Times):

Holmes was a cold and brutally cynical man who had contempt for the masses and for the progressive laws he voted to uphold. (See New York Times, op-ed, published July 3, 2010.)

Click on the portrait image for a better view. 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5183stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 11, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Oct 17, 2019

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy U.S. National Archives.


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