Louis D. Brandeis: A Life

By Teo, Kam W. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Louis D. Brandeis: A Life


Teo, Kam W., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Melvin I. Urofsky. Louis D. Brandeis: A Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. 953 pages. $40.00 (Hardcover).

Melvin I. Urofsky has written a monumental biography of Louis Dembitz

Brandeis (1856-1941), a judge who sits among the pantheon of the greatest United States Supreme Court Justices, a group which includes John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A native Kentuckian, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice can also be claimed by Massachusetts, as this legal leviathan spent his entire career based in Boston before ascending to the high court at age 59. Urofsky provides evidence that Brandeis imbibed New England's traditional values of democracy and selfreliance, giving him a head start towards becoming one of the most prominent social reformers in the first decades of the twentieth century. At the same time, Urofsky presents a politically astute "attorney for the people" who became one of the few Supreme Court justices not to have occupied a previous judicial position. A controversial figure during the Supreme Court nomination process, Brandeis ultimately helped create the modern legal foundation for privacy and free speech. In a year (2010) that has seen two Supreme Court appointments that may set the tone for the coming decades, Urofsky's monumental work on Brandeis is timely.

An editor of a five-volume collection of Brandeis' papers, Melvin Urofsky, a legal scholar and professor emeritus of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes as an admirer of Brandeis. The author introduces Brandeis as a scion of well-off merchants of eastern European Jewish heritage with a childhood in Kentucky. Armed with an education in Europe, Brandeis arrived at Harvard Law as a young man who discovered that "Cambridge and Boston [were] attractive places to live"(36). Brandeis' "intelligence, handsome, outgoing personality, and [his many] friendships" with classmates from Brahmin Boston opened doors. Initially, the young lawyer did not suffer from blatant anti-Semitism, according to Urofsky, though he provides evidence that the wife of Brandeis' best friend and law partner, Samuel Warren, snubbed him by not inviting young Louis to their wedding. Still, Brandeis began his career with great vigor teaching parttime at Harvard Law and MIT. Brandeis also co-founded the Harvard Law Alumni Association. It appeared, therefore, that the native Kentuckian was on his way toward scaling the summit of Brahmin Boston.

Urofsky posits that Brandeis' concept of democracy, in which government did not interfere in the economy to aid big business, had its foundation in "traditional American principles" found within the New England ethos (92). Such a government was also a defender of the public interest, a mindset also indigenous to Massachusetts. This traditional (or parochial) Boston worldview eventually clashed with Boston's financial and professional elite, which consisted of Brahmins who had originally welcomed Brandeis. The prescribed new business philosophy of the 1890's and the early 1900's emphasized profits, often made possible through monopoly. This was the Gilded Age, which saw the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. In what the future justice referred to as "my first important public work," Brandeis opposed the Boston Elevated Company, a syndicate that included J.P. Morgan & Company, in its efforts to build a railway line through downtown Boston including Boston Common (132). Though not altogether successful in his efforts, according to Urofsky, the young lawyer earned a reformist reputation.

Throughout the work, Urofsky presents successes that occurred for Brandeis due as much to the unique Massachusetts ethos as to Brandesian wherewithal. In what the author calls Brandeis' most successful reform, the Boston lawyer created savings bank life insurance for Massachusetts residents. At the time, working class insurance holders were unable to protect themselves against insurance companies due to opaque financial statements that hid diversion of funds for private use and large salaries. …

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