The Great Dissent How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind--and Changed the History of Free Speech in America

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 9/9/2014
  • Publisher: Picador

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No right seems more fundamental to American life than freedom of speech. Yet well into the twentieth century that freedom was still an unfulfilled promise, with Americans regularly imprisoned merely for speaking out against government policies. Indeed, free speech as we know it comes less from the First Amendment than from a most unexpected source: Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. A lifelong skeptic, he disdained all individual rights, including the right to express one's political views. But in 1919, it was Holmes who wrote a dissenting opinion that would become the canonical affirmation of free speech in the United States.

Why did Holmes change his mind? That question has puzzled historians for almost a century. Now, with the aid of newly discovered letters and confidential memos, Thomas Healy reconstructs in vivid detail Holmes's journey from free-speech opponent to First Amendment hero. It is the story of a remarkable behind-the-scenes campaign by a group of progressives to bring a legal icon around to their way of thinking—and a deeply touching human narrative of an old man saved from loneliness and despair by a few unlikely young friends.

Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, The Great Dissent is intellectual history at its best, revealing how free debate can alter the life of a man and the legal landscape of an entire nation.

Author Biography

Thomas Healy is a professor of law at Seton Hall Law School. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and was a Supreme Court correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. He has written extensively about free speech, the Constitution, and the federal courts. The Great Dissent is his first book.

Table of Contents

Prologue: An Unexpected Visit                    1
1. Train Fever                                             9
2. A Smart Chap                                       28
3. The Habit of Intolerance                        47
4. Catspawned                                          61
5. The Old Ewe and the Half-Bakes          77
6. “He Shoots So Quickly”                        92
7. Defending Sophistries                          105
8. Dangerous Men                                   115
9. “They Know Not What They Do”        132
10. The Red Summer                               143
11. “Workers—Wake Up!”                     164
12. A Plea for Help                                  182
13. “Quasi in Furore”                             198
14. Adulation                                           211
15. “Alone at Laski”                                224
Epilogue: “I Simply Was Ignorant”           240
Notes                                                      251
Bibliography                                            299
Acknowledgments                                   309
Index                                                      313

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