Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 18

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 18


This is the grave of Oliver Wendell Holmes.


Holmes of course is one of the most famous and important Supreme Court justices in American history. After barely surviving the Civil War (wounded a number of times and also barely defeated a case of dysentery), Holmes enrolled in Harvard Law School and then practiced admiralty and case law for about fifteen years in Boston. In 1881, he gave a series of lectures that became a famous book titled The Common Law. President Hayes considered him for a federal judgeship in 1878 but he demurred. But he was convinced in 1882 to take a seat on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, where he became Chief Justice in 1899. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt nominated him for the Supreme Court of the United States. Senator George Hoar attempted to block confirmation to protest Roosevelt’s imperialist policies that were shared by Holmes, but he eventually was confirmed. He quickly angered Roosevelt by voting against his position in Northern Securities. He authored many of the most important opinions in U.S. history, including in Schenck, Abrams, and Buck v. Bell that held up eugenics and forced sterilization. His record as far as the modern liberal looking back from a political perspective is mixed, but he’s one of the 5 most important jurists in the Court’s history.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, on the grounds formerly owned by the treasonous Robert E. Lee.

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  • Mudge

    Ah..Arlington..appropriated by that notorious Georgian, Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster of the Union Armies. His son is buried in Lee’s old rose garden. Meigs was very, very angry about the treason of the south and more outspoken than most.

    Holmes’ father was interesting as well. An ex-pat, in a way, for a while. in Europe

    • Woodrowfan

      he also is responsible for DC water system, toured Europe getting ideas for Boss Sheppard to rebuild DC, and (If I remember right) helped develop Freedman’s Village on Custis land.

  • the ordinary fool

    Haven’t read enough to back up this anecdote well (quick search suggest it’s correct), but one of my constitutional law profs told me an interesting story about Holmes. When Holmes was on the MA state supreme court, he became something of an expert in the law of criminal attempt, i.e., in deciding when someone has progressed so far down a course of action as to be criminally liable, even though they didn’t actually commit the crime per se.

    Without actually condoning his reasoning, in this light his early First Amendment cases seem more comprehensible. Overthrowing the government is a criminal act, and if you’re willing to believe that vigorously advocating for it constitutes a criminal attempt, then you’re probably willing to view that speech as unprotected activity.

    Again, not condoning it, though I find it interesting. I’m thankful that Holmes saw the light and started voting with Brandeis for a more expansive view of free speech.

    • heckblazer

      Tying this back to labor history, with the Italian Hall Disaster in recent memory his line about shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater was not a hypothetical.

  • efgoldman

    Excellent choice for today, given the threads of the last 24 hours. Do you have a bunch of these saved up, to post as necessary?

    • I have about 35 or so total right now. Unfortunately, my Arlington trip was before I even started thinking of this so I have only a few photos from there.

  • Mellano

    Makes sense his military service is listsed above his Supreme Court tenure, given the way he looked back on the war. Wonder if that’s typical for other civil war veterans with later public careers.

    • I would say it is common, but by no means universal.

    • Jackov

      The 20th MA suffered among the highest casualties of all
      Union regiments during the war including nearly 70%
      attrition at Fredericksburg.

      • Cheerful

        Oliver gave a couple of speeches on Memorial Day in 1884 and 1895 that showed his attitude towards the war – and the extent to which he came to value physical courage displayed there. As regards Fredericksburg, there’s this excerpt:

        There is one who on this day is always present on my mind. [Web note: Henry Abbott, 20th Mass.] He entered the army at nineteen, a second lieutenant. In the Wilderness, already at the head of his regiment, he fell, using the moment that was left him of life to give all of his little fortune to his soldiers.I saw him in camp, on the march, in action. I crossed debatable land with him when we were rejoining the Army together. I observed him in every kind of duty, and never in all the time I knew him did I see him fail to choose that alternative of conduct which was most disagreeable to himself. He was indeed a Puritan in all his virtues, without the Puritan austerity; for, when duty was at an end, he who had been the master and leader became the chosen companion in every pleasure that a man might honestly enjoy. His few surviving companions will never forget the awful spectacle of his advance alone with his company in the streets of Fredericksburg.[Web note: The legendary suicidal charge of the 20th Mass. Regiment occurred on Dec. 11, 1862.] In less than sixty seconds he would become the focus of a hidden and annihilating fire from a semicircle of houses. His first platoon had vanished under it in an instant, ten men falling dead by his side. He had quietly turned back to where the other half of his company was waiting, had given the order, “Second Platoon, forward!” and was again moving on, in obedience to superior command, to certain and useless death, when the order he was obeying was countermanded. The end was distant only a few seconds; but if you had seen him with his indifferent carriage, and sword swinging from his finger like a cane, you would never have suspected that he was doing more than conducting a company drill on the camp parade ground. He was little more than a boy, but the grizzled corps commanders knew and admired him; and for us, who not only admired, but loved, his death seemed to end a portion of our life also.

        I think it lead Holmes at least in some degree to respect strength, of the government of the individual, over other qualities, e.g. as this excerpt from the 1895 speech:

        War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine. I hope it may be long before we are called again to sit at that master’s feet. But some teacher of the kind we all need. In this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger. We need it in this time of individualist negations, with its literature of French and American humor, revolting at discipline, loving flesh-pots, and denying that anything is worthy of reverence–in order that we may remember all that buffoons forget. We need it everywhere and at all times. For high and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof. Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism. The proof comes later, and even may never come. Therefore I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued. The students at Heidelberg, with their sword-slashed faces, inspire me with sincere respect. I gaze with delight upon our polo players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.

        • bad Jim

          Arthur Koestler was a member of a Jewish dueling fraternity in Austria; only one other fraternity would duel with them, and he only fought once, with neither suffering a visible injury.

  • sharculese

    Did you and Shake coordinate on this, or was it fortuitous coincidence?

    • Total coincidence. I started the post this morning.

    • Co. Ordin. Ate…


      Hang on, I’ll get my dictionary.

  • I assume Scalia despised Holmes, who as I understand it viewed the law and the Constitution as living things that grew and changed as society grew and changed.

  • CP

    Oliver Wendell Holmes is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, on the grounds formerly owned by the treasonous Robert E. Lee.

    I’ve always loved the symbolism of that area. A bridge over the Potomac river. At one end, the Lincoln Memorial. At the other end, the home of Robert E. Lee. It’s not the Berlin Wall, but as symbols of nations divided go, it works pretty well.

    I’ve also always loved the fact that the reason Arlington Cemetary was built on his grounds was so that he could look out every morning and see the graves of all the men he’d helped kill. (If that story is apocryphal, please don’t disillusion me. I want to keep believing it).

    • The land was confiscated in 1861 and Lee never returned to live there.

      • EliHawk

        I think it was less that he’d have to see it and more to ensure that he’d never come back. They put graves all through his gardens right up to the house to make that point, that it’d be impossible for the house to be a house again.

      • CP

        DAMN IT, ERIK!

        ‘s okay. Education matters, I suppose.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Perhaps his earth-bound ghost haunts the house, and is in turn haunted by the grounds.

          • N__B

            OT: LinkedIn has recommended you as someone I might know. Short of LinkedIn reading my screen, I’m not sure how that happened.

    • sharculese

      To add to what Loomis said, although the federal government had basically no intention of letting the Lees reclaim the land, turning it into a memorial to the Union dead was very definitely a calculated ‘fuck you’ to them.

      • And of course much of Lee’s own family wanted him to side with the Union.

        • CP

          Oh, that I didn’t know.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Looking forward to visiting Scalia’s grave, with a full bladder.

    “Have a great day, buddy”.

    • Murc

      Don’t actually do that.

      Graves aren’t for the dead; they’re for the living. What has Scalia’s family ever done to you, that you’d try and hurt them that way?

      • Warren Terra

        Mind you, one of Scalia’s sons was the solicitor for George W Bush’s Dept of Labor, and so was in the business of betraying workers on behalf of the government (as opposed to his job before and after, screwing workers on behalf of their employers). The answer might not be nothing!

  • EliHawk

    I always love that little SCOTUS section of Arlington. You have Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, and Blackmun all together in row, and all a little ways away from Burger, as though they still can’t stand him, even in death. Meanwhile, Douglas, idiosyncratic to the last, is off doing his own thing next to Holmes.

    • You also have RBG’s grave, with her husband already buried there.

      • EliHawk

        See, now you’re making me sad.

      • Warren Terra

        I know some elderly people feel comfort and security in knowing they have a place lined up for their remains to reside, and especially if it’s together with their loved one(s). Even so, it’s an awfully morbid thought, if not so much for them then for others.

  • Dilan Esper

    Interesting that we now call him Oliver Wendall Holmes. He was “junior”. Senior was also famous.

    • I rarely see his name without the “Jr.” (what is the word for those appellations?). Interesting it’s not on the stone.

  • Crusty

    “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

    • An 8-1 decision.

    • Gabriel Ratchet

      The Bush family motto? Or is that “The Aristocrats!”

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