The Long Life And Broad Mind Of Mr. Justice Holmes


Fanny Holmes died in 1929 at the age of eighty-nine, and Holmes wrote to his friends that she had made life poetry for him. He said that he was glad that she had gone first, for he felt—and one is sure correctly—that she would have been worse off without him than he without her. It was only too evident that he had constituted her entire life, whereas she had hardly expected—or even wanted—to constitute all of his. In the following year Charles Evans Hughes was appointed Chief Justice, and Holmes wrote to Laski that he had lunched at the White House, and that Mrs. Hoover had told him that the President would have liked to appoint him but had thought that he should not be burdened. Indeed, he did not want the appointment; he no longer cared for anything that anyone could give him. On January 12, 1931, he retired from the Court. Harvard Law School continued to send him one of its brightest graduates each year, to be his law clerk and secretary, until his death in 1935, just before his ninety-fourth birthday.

In the final years Holmes became a national hero and was inundated, almost to the point of asphyxiation, with laudations. His fame extended far beyond the legal field, and he was elevated into a kind of old national darling to thousands who could not have understood a page of The Common Law . Holmes’s attitude about this outburst of fame was amiable enough, but he was never one to value highly any praise that was not discriminating. A word of approval from Sir Frederick Pollock was worth a thousand hosannas. His life had been a happy one, because he had had his chance and had used it, the chance to break his heart “in trying to make every word living and real.” The only tragedy would have been to have missed it, a thought which had haunted him in the long campaigns of the Civil War. He never forgot the friends of the 20th Regiment who had lost their chances at Ball’s Bluff, or Antietam, or Fredericksburg.