Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was born on March 8, 1841, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Amelia Lee Jackson. His father was a prominent writer and physician as well as “a leading figure in Boston intellectual and literary circles.” His mother was an abolitionist who was “connected to the leading families” such as Henry James Sr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Young Holmes was known as “Wendell” in his youth, and he was lifelong friends with Henry James Jr. and William James. Young Holmes was reared “in an atmosphere of intellectual achievement, and early formed the ambition to be a man of letters like Emerson.
Holmes supported the Abolitionist movement. He attended Harvard and followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of the Hasty Pudding and the Porcellian Club. He left school briefly in the spring of 1861 when President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers after rebels fired on Fort Sumter, but he returned to school briefly to participate in commencement exercises. That summer Holmes was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Holmes “saw much action, from the Peninsula Campaign to the Wilderness, suffering wounds at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, and suffered from a near-fatal case of dysentery. Holmes particularly admired and was close to his fellow officer in the 20th Mass., Henry Livermore Abbott. Holmes rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, but eschewed promotion in his regiment and served on the staff of the VI Corps during the Wilderness campaign. Abbott took command of the regiment in his place, and was killed. Holmes is said to have shouted at Lincoln to take cover during the Battle of Fort Stevens, although this is commonly regarded as apocryphal. Although Holmes himself made this claim, he likely was not present on the day Lincoln visited Fort Stevens. Holmes received a brevet (honorary) promotion to colonel in recognition of his services during the war. He retired to his home in Boston after his three-year enlistment ended in 1864, weary and ill, his regiment disbanded.”
Colonel Holmes returned to Boston during the summer 1864; there he “wrote poetry and debated philosophy with his friend William James.” He considered reenlisting in the military; when he realized the war was about to end, he enrolled in the Harvard Law School in the fall of 1864. There he spent a year attending lectures and “reading extensively in theoretical works.” He spent the next year clerking in the law office of his cousin Robert Morse.
Holmes was admitted to the bar in 1866 but went to London to complete his education before joining a small law firm in Boston. He practiced admiralty law and commercial law for fifteen years. He visited London whenever he could during the social season of spring and summer and formed romantic friendships with English noble women. He also enjoyed intellectual friendships with British men.
In 1872 Holmes married Fanny Bowditch Dixwell, who had been a friend since childhood. The couple was not blessed with children of their own, but they adopted Dorothy Upham, an orphaned cousin. Fanny did not like Beacon Hill society but did enjoy embroidery. “She was described as devoted, witty, wise, tactful, and perceptive.” She died on April 30, 1929.
Holmes served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1902-1932) and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States (January-February 1930). He was “noted for his long service, his concise and pithy opinions and his deference to the decisions of elected legislatures;” he was also “one of the most widely cited United States Supreme Court justices in history, particularly for his `clear and present danger’ opinion for a unanimous Court in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States, and is one of the most influential American common law judges, honored during his lifetime in Great Britain as well as the United States. Holmes retired from the Court at the age of 90 years, 309 days, making him the oldest Justice in the Supreme Court’s history. He also served as an Associate Justice and as Chief Justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and was Weld Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, of which he was an alumnus.”
Justice Holmes died of pneumonia on March 6, 1835, in Washington, D.C., just two days short of his 94th birthday. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Believing that “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” he left his residuary estate to the United States government. “His personal effects included his Civil War Officer’s uniform still stained with his blood and `torn with shot’ as well as the carefully wrapped Minie balls that had wounded him three times in separate battles.“ His papers were donated to Harvard Law School.
“The United States Postal Service honored Holmes with a Prominent Americans series (1965-1978) 15 cent postage stamp. In 1972 his summer house in Beverly, Massachusetts, became a National Historic Landmark.