Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Shaping Years 1841-1870, by Mark DeWolfe Howe
By 1870, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had been graduated from Harvard College, wounded in battle in the Civil War, attended Harvard Law School, enjoyed a grand tour of Europe, and begun his apprenticeship in the respectable Boston law firm of Chandler, Shattuck and Thayer. This was only the beginning of a career and one sharply cut in the pattern of the better Boston families. Professor Howe, whose many qualifications for this work include a thorough at-homeness in the scene of Holmes’s youth, describes that scene with a vivid economy of detail hard to match in any other recent American biography.
For most readers who know only Justice Holmes the national figure, and who think of him as a formulator of the profound issues of American federalism, this portrait of the young Holmes will be especially valuable. The confinement of Holmes’s youth to New England, his almost exclusive preoccupation with local, sometimes even provincial, concerns, reminds us of a historic feature of our national leadership. Scarcely any of our political and cultural leaders have been men raised with their eyes on the nation as a whole. Their orientation has rather been that of some particular region, and they become national figures precisely because they express the pungent peculiarity of the locale in which they grew up: Emerson, New England; Mark Twain, the West; Faulkner, the South. American life offers few examples, whether in politics or in letters, of a man who leaps directly onto the national stage. We can find no greater contrast to this than in the English ruling class of the 19th century, which was educated at Harrow or Eton, Oxford or Cambridge, where local idiosyncrasies were supposedly submerged in the habits of a national aristocracy. The only political arena in which they wanted to play a part was the national one: in Parliament they represented districts where they had never lived. Jefferson, on the other hand, could become a great American only because he was a great Virginian first; his youth was as rooted in provincial Virginia as Holmes’s was in New England. And of course Holmes did not become a great Federal judge until after he had served Massachusetts for many years. This difference between two kinds of national leadership—and avenues to leadership—tells us much about our cultural as well as our political federalism.
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