Taft, Holmes, and the 1920s Court: An Appraisal

Taft, Holmes, and the 1920s Court: An Appraisal

Taft, Holmes, and the 1920s Court: An Appraisal

Taft, Holmes, and the 1920s Court: An Appraisal

Synopsis

This study is an account of how Taft and Holmes arrived at the summit of their public vocations. It reveals their common heritage and traces their divergence in jurisprudential matters.

Excerpt

In 1921, William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the united States. One of his fellow justices, a veteran of nearly twenty years on the bench, was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Despite differences in judging the law the two became good friends, whose mutual esteem was one of the features of the 1920 s court. For both men their justiceships were the capstones of their careers in public service from which they gained immediate personal satisfaction as well as national acclaim.

Historians and biographers have yet to treat Taft and Holmes as cut from the same bolt of cloth. Ordinarily, Taft is remembered as both a judicial conservative and a court activist. For his part, Holmes has been celebrated as a court liberal and an advocate of judicial restraint. Such characterizations are accurate enough, as far as they go. Taft, however, gave clear indications that legal realism had a place in American jurisprudence, and from time to time Holmes was heard to speak in less than liberal tones.

This study delivers more than its title appears to promise, yet the title remains appropriate. It is an account not only of the decade of their common court membership but an explanation as well how Taft and Holmes arrived at the summit of their public vocations. It reveals their common heritage and traces their divergence in jurisprudential matters. They derived from like backgrounds in family and fortune and grew to manhood when scientific materialism was the persuasive philosophy. It was as knights-errant they entered the legal lists, bent on doing justice. Yet in the fulness of their years there had emerged two justices and two different meanings which they gave to the great law, the Constitution.

What was it about them -- natural or instinctive, studied or acquired -- that denied them a common philosophy of the law? And, when evidence can be advanced to explain their diversity, were Taft and Holmes merely representive of the variations common to individual reactions to and interpretations of the intellectual forces at work in society? Or were they competing symbols for the spirit of an age?

The method employed to get at these and other questions is dual . . .

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