Free Speech
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Oliver Wendell Holmes and Free Speech

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an influential Supreme Court justice in early 20th century
  • Holmes's experiences fighting in the Civil War made him skeptical of crusading idealistic causes such as the abolitionism he blamed for causing the war

In April 1861, a month after his twentieth birthday, a month before his scheduled graduation from Harvard, and eleven days after the shelling of Fort Sumter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., dropped out of school and enlisted in the army. At Ball's Bluff, Holmes saw his first action and took a bullet in the chest. Army doctors told him he would die—but he didn't. He returned to his regiment and fought at Antietam, where he was shot in the neck. Again Holmes recovered, returned to his regiment, and again he was wounded in action—he was shot in the foot at the second battle of Fredericksburg. He returned to his regiment in time to see one final action at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864.

Holmes entered the war an ardent abolitionist. During college he served as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips, protecting the fiery abolitionist from Boston mobs convinced that Phillips's antislavery extremism would tear the Union apart. But by the war's end, Holmes was a different man. He was far less certain in his beliefs. He was now uncomfortable with talk of "truth" and battles waged on behalf of ideals. In fact, the only thing he knew with certainty was that certainty led to death.

In 1902, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was named to the United States Supreme Court. During his 30 years on the Court he would write some of its most important opinions on the freedom of speech. But he found the First Amendment's meaning not in the congressional or ratification debates of the 1780s, but on the battlefields of the Civil War.

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