Oliver Wendell Holmes

A Life in War, Law, and Ideas

Stephen Budiansky (Author)


The extraordinary story of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most influential justice.

Oliver Wendell Holmes twice escaped death as a young Union officer in the Civil War when musket balls missed his heart and spinal cord by a fraction of an inch at the Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Antietam. He lived ever after with unwavering moral courage, unremitting scorn for dogma, and an insatiable intellectual curiosity.

Named to the Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt at age sixty-one, he served for nearly three decades, writing a series of famous, eloquent, and often dissenting opinions that would prove prophetic in securing freedom of speech, protecting the rights of criminal defendants, and ending the Court’s reactionary resistance to social and economic reforms.

As a pioneering legal scholar, Holmes revolutionized the understanding of common law by showing how the law always evolved to meet the changing needs of society. As an enthusiastic friend and indefatigable correspondent, he wrote thousands of personal letters brimming with humorous philosophical insights, trenchant comments on the current scene, and an abiding joy in fighting the good fight.

Drawing on many previously unpublished letters and records, Stephen Budiansky’s definitive biography offers the fullest portrait yet of this pivotal American figure, whose zest for life, wit, and intellect left a profound legacy in law and Constitutional rights, and who was an inspiring example of how to lead a meaningful life in a world of uncertainty and upheaval.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • Forthcoming May 2019
  • ISBN 978-0-393-63472-3
  • 6.4 × 9.6 in / 592 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide including Canada, Singapore and Malaysia, but excluding the British Commonwealth.

Endorsements & Reviews

“Especially consequential....Budiansky's is now the most engrossing of the major Holmes biographies.” — Lincoln Caplan, Harvard Magazine

“The longevity and complexity of Holmes’s life and judicial philosophy present a formidable challenge to a biographer. Stephen Budiansky has met that challenge in distinguished fashion. Weaving together Holmes’s private and public lives with a clarity that reveals what had often seemed obscure in previous biographies, this book also shows how Holmes’s experience as a thrice-wounded Civil War officer subtly shaped his social and juridical ideas during the next seventy years.” — James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

“Stephen Budiansky’s Oliver Wendell Holmes portrays the ultimate giant of American law and intellectual history. In this stunningly researched and compellingly written biography Budiansky brings Holmes back to life. This is an astonishing look at what made our native jurisprudence genius tick. Highly recommended!” — Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior and Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair of Humanities and professor of history at Rice University

“A lively and informative portrait of the great justice.” — Robert C. Post, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School

“Top-notch....Turning the influential judge’s life into a page-turner seems a highly difficult task, but journalist and historian Budiansky succeeds admirably....An entirely fascinating biography of one of America’s most important legal minds.” — Kirkus (starred review)

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