Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

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Certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (8 March 18416 March 1935) was an American jurist and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932; he was often called "The Great Dissenter", and was the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Get down, you fool!
State interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good.
  • There are not infrequent times when a bottle of wine, a good dinner, a girl of some trivial sort can fill the hour for me.
    • Letter to William James, as quoted in Henry James: The Untried Years: 1843-1870 (1953) by Leon Edel, p. 229.


  • Get down, you fool!
    • Assertion famously directed at then-President Abraham Lincoln when he came under enemy fire at Fort Stevens during the American Civil War, as quoted in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, p. 643.


  • But as precedents survive like the clavicle in the cat, long after the use they once served is at an end, and the reason for them has been forgotten, the result of following them must often be failure and confusion from the merely logical point of view.
    • "Common Carriers and the Common Law", 13 Am. Law Rev. 608, 630 (1879).


Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.
  • The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience... The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.
  • The degree of civilization which a people has reached, no doubt, is marked by their anxiety to do as they would be done by.
    • Ibid., p. 44.
  • State interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good.
    • Ibid., p. 88-96.

In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire (1884)

"In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire", Memorial Day speech at Keene, New Hampshire, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic (30 May 1884) reported in Holmes, Speeches (1934), p. 3.
  • It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for the country in return.
  • I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
  • We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.
    But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.


Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our fathers have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a larger part than what we suspect of what we think.
  • As for us, our days of combat are over. Our swords are rust. Our guns will thunder no more. The vultures that once wheeled over our heads must be buried with their prey. Whatever of glory must be won in the council or the closet, never again in the field. I do not repine. We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.
  • The law, so far as it depends on learning, is indeed, as it has been called, the government of the living by the dead. To a very considerable extent no doubt it is inevitable that the living should be so governed. The past gives us our vocabulary and fixes the limits of our imagination; we cannot get away from it. There is, too, a peculiar logical pleasure in making manifest the continuity between what we are doing and what has been done before. But the present has a right to govern itself so far as it can; and it ought always to be remembered that historic continuity with the past is not a duty, it is only a necessity.
    • "Learning and Science", speech at a dinner of the Harvard Law School Association in honor of Professor C. C. Langdell (June 25, 1895); reported in Speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1896). p. 67-68.
  • I always say you can get your tragedy of any desired length in England, from thirty seconds to a lifetime. I had one adorable one of twenty-nine minutes by the watch. At the end of that time I started for my train. Woman I'd had a glimpse of in London — walk. She sat on a style, I below her, gazing into her eyes — then, "remember this lane," "while memory holds its seat, etc." "Adieu." And I still do and ever shall remember her, and I rather think she does me a little bit. What imbecilities for an old fellow to be talking. But if one knows his place and makes way for younger men when he isn't sure, it is better perhaps not quite to abandon interest in the sports of life.
    • Letter to Sir Frederick Pollock (23 August 1895); reported in Holmes-Pollock Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock (1961) edited by Mark De Wolfe Howe, Vol. 1, p. 60; also reported in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions (1954), p. 437.
  • Free competition is worth more to society than it costs.
    • Vegelahn v. Guntner, 167 Mass. 92, 44 N.E. 1077, 1080 (1896) (Supreme Court of Massachusetts, Holmes dissenting).
  • One of the eternal conflicts out of which life is made up is that between the effort of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible return.
    • Ibid.
  • The aim of the law is not to punish sins, but is to prevent certain external results.
    • Commonwealth v. Kennedy, 170 Mass. 18, 20 (1897) (opinion of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts).

The Path of the Law (1897)

"The Path of the Law" 10 Harvard Law Review 457.
  • Certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.
  • The advice of the elders to young men is very apt to be as unreal as a list of the hundred best books.
  • For the rational study of the law the blackletter man may be the man of the present, but the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics.
  • If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.
  • When we study law we are not studying a mystery but a well-known profession. We are studying what we shall want in order to appear before judges, or to advise people in such a way as to keep them out of court. The reason why it is a profession, why people will pay lawyers to argue for them or to advise them, is that in societies like ours the command of the public force is intrusted to the judges in certain cases, and the whole power of the state will be put forth, if necessary, to carry out their judgments and decrees. People want to know under what circumstances and how far they will run the risk of coming against what is so much stronger than themselves, and hence it becomes a business to find out when this danger is to be feared. The object of our study, then, is prediction, the prediction of the incidence of the public force through the instrumentality of the courts.


Nature has but one judgment on wrong conduct — if you can call that a judgment which seemingly has no reference to conduct as such — the judgment of death.
  • The only simplicity for which I would give a straw is that which is on the other side of the complex — not that which never has divined it.
    • in a letter to Sir Frederick Pollock dated October 14, 1902
    • collected in "Holmes-Pollock Letters : The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock, 1874-1932" (2nd ed., 1961), p. 109.
    • Often quoted as "I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity" and attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr..
  • One has to try to strike the jugular and let the rest go.
    • Speech on the death of Walbridge Abner Field, Chief Justice of Massachusetts (25 November 1899), reported in Speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1900), p. 77.
  • Nature has but one judgment on wrong conduct — if you can call that a judgment which seemingly has no reference to conduct as such — the judgment of death.
    • Address at the dedication of the Northwestern University Law School Building, Chicago, Illinois (20 October 1902); republished in Holmes' Collected Legal Papers (1937), p. 272.
  • Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.
    • Reportedly first said by Holmes in a speech in 1904, alternately phrased as "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure", Compania General De Tabacos De Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100, dissenting; opinion (21 November 1927). The first variation is quoted by the IRS above the entrance to their headquarters at 1111 Constitution Avenue.
  • Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance in shaping the law of the future, but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgement.
  • Constitutions are intended to preserve practical and substantial rights, not to maintain theories.
    • Davis v. Mills, 194 U.S. 451, 457 (1904).
  • The great act of faith is when a man decides that he is not God.
  • Philosophy may have gained by the attempts in recent years to look through the fiction to the fact and to generalize corporations, partnerships, and other groups into a single conception. But to generalize is to omit, and, in this instance, to omit one characteristic of the complete corporation, as called into being under modern statutes, that is most important in business and law.
    • Donnell v. Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co., 208 U.S. 267, 273 (1908).
  • The major premise of the conclusion expressed in a statute, the change of policy that induces the enactment, may not be set out in terms, but it is not an adequate discharge of duty for courts to say: We see what you are driving at, but you have not said it, and therefore we shall go on as before.
    • Johnson v. United States, 163 F. 30 (1st Cir. 1908) (Justice Holmes sitting by designation as a judge of the First Circuit).
  • Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.
    • "Early Forms of Liability," Lecture I from The Common Law. (1909).

Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905)

Dissenting opinion.
  • Every opinion tends to become a law.
    • 198 U.S. at 75.
  • A Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory . . . It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar, or novel, and even shocking, ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States.
    • 198 U.S. at 76.
  • General propositions do not decide concrete cases.
    • 198 U.S. at 76.
  • The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.
    • 198 U.S. at 79.


Man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand.
The chief end of a man is to frame general ideas — and... no general idea is worth a damn.
To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.
  • Now and then, an extraordinary case may turn up, but constitutional law, like other mortal contrivances, has to take some chances, and in the great majority of instances, no doubt, justice will be done.
    • Blinn v. Nelson, 222 U.S. 1, 7 (1911).
  • Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.
    • Address to the Harvard Alumni Association to the Class of '61, in Speeches (1913), p. 96.
  • Life is a roar of bargain and battle, but in the very heart of it there rises a mystic spiritual tone that gives meaning to the whole. It transmutes the dull details into romance. It reminds us that our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole. It suggests that even while living we are living to ends outside ourselves
    • Address to the Harvard Alumni Association to the Class of '61, in Speeches (1913), p. 96.
  • Life is action, the use of one's powers. As to use them to their height is our joy and duty, so it is the one end that justifies itself.
    • Speech to the Bar Association of Boston, in Speeches (1913), p. 85.
  • With all humility, I think, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Infinitely more important than the vain attempt to love one's neighbor as one's self. If you want to hit a bird on the wing, you must have all your will in focus, you must not be thinking about yourself, and equally, you must not be thinking about your neighbor: you must be living in your eye on that bird. Every achievement is a bird on the wing.
    • Speech to the Bar Association of Boston, in Speeches (1913), p. 85.
  • Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have had enough of it.
    • Speech to the Bar Association of Boston, in Speeches (1913), p. 86.
  • It is urged in the first place that contempts cannot be crimes, because, although punishable by imprisonment, and therefore, if crimes, infamous, they are not within the protection of the Constitution and the Amendments giving a right to trial by jury, etc., to persons charged with such crimes. But the provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas having their essence in their form; they are organic, living institutions transplanted from English soil. Their significance is vital, not formal; it is to be gathered not simply by taking the words and a dictionary, but by considering their origin and the line of their growth.
  • Whatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase "due process of law" there can be no doubt that it embraces the fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard.
    • Frank v. Magnum, 237 U.S. 309, 347 (1915).
  • The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, but the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi sovereign that can be identified; although some decisions with which I have disagreed seem to me to have forgotten the fact.
  • A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.
  • The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.
  • The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
  • The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree. When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.

"Law and the Court" (1913)

"Law and the Court", Speech at a dinner of the Harvard Law School Association of New York, New York City (15 February 1913); published in Speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1934), p. 102.
  • Vanity is the most philosophical of those feelings that we are taught to despise. For vanity recognizes that if a man is in a minority of one we lock him up, and therefore longs for an assurance from others that one's work has not been in vain.
  • As I grow older I grow calm. If I feel what are perhaps an old man's apprehensions, that competition from new races will cut deeper than working men's disputes and will test whether we can hang together or can fight.
  • I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be — that man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand.
  • I do not think the United States would come to an end if we lost our power to declare an Act of Congress void. I do think the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as to the laws of the several States.
  • Most men think dramatically, not quantitatively, a fact that the rich would be wise to remember more than they do. We are apt to contrast the palace with the hovel, the dinner at Sherry's with the workingman's pail, and never ask how much or realize how little is withdrawn to make the prizes of success. (Subordinate prizes — since the only prize much cared for by the powerful is power. The prize of the general is not a bigger tent, but command.)
  • When twenty years ago a vague terror went over the earth and the word socialism began to be heard, I thought and still think that fear was translated into doctrines that had no proper place in the Constitution or the common law. Judges are apt to be naif, simple-minded men, and they need something of Mephistopheles. We too need education in the obvious—to learn to transcend our own convictions and to leave room for much that we hold dear to be done away with short of revolution by the orderly change of law.

"Natural Law", 32 Harvard Law Review 40, 41 (1918)

  • There is in all men a demand for the superlative, so much so that the poor devil who has no other way of reaching it attains it by getting drunk.
  • Our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view.
  • Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about — you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer — and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.

Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)

We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
Dissenting opinion (10 November 1919).
  • That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.
    • 250 U.S. 616; 630.
  • It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned.
    • 250 U.S. at 628.
  • To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care whole-heartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas —that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.
    • 250 U.S. at 630.
  • I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
    • 250 U.S. at 630.
  • Only the emergency that makes it immediately dangerous to leave the correction of evil counsels to time warrants making any exception to the sweeping command, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."
    • 250 U.S. at 630-31.


  • I always say, as you know, that if my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It's my job.
    • Letter to Harold Laski (4 March 1920); reported in Holmes-Laski Letters (1953) by Mark DeWolfe Howe, vol. 1, p. 249.
  • Men must turn square corners when they deal with the Government.
    • Rock Island C.R.R. v. United States, 254 U.S. 141, 143 (22 November 1920).
  • Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.
    • Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335, 343 (16 May 1921).
  • A page of history is worth a volume of logic.
    • New York Trust Co. v. Eisner, 256 U.S. 345, 349 (1921).
  • If a thing has been practised for two hundred years by common consent, it will need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it.
    • Jackman v. Rosenbaum Co., 260 U.S. 22, 31 (1922).
  • The general rule, at least, is that while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.
    • Pennsylvania Coal Company v. H. J. Mahon, 260 U.S. 415, 415 (1922).
  • I confess that I do not understand the principle on which the power to fix a minimum for the wages of women can be denied by those who admit the power to fix a maximum for their hours of work. I fully assent to the proposition that here as elsewhere the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree, but I perceive no difference in the kind or degree of interference with liberty, the only matter with which we have any concern, between the one case and the other. The bargain is equally affected whichever half you regulate…. It will need more than the Nineteenth Amendment to convince me that there are no differences between men and women, or that legislation cannot take those differences into account.
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., dissenting, Adkins, et al., Constituting the Minimum Wage Board of the District of Columbia, v. Children's Hospital of the District of Columbia; Same v. Lyons, 261 U.S. 569–70 (1923).
  • If I were dying, my last words would be, Have faith and pursue the unknown end.
    • Letter to John Ching Hsiung Wu (1924), published in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: His Book Notices and Uncollected Letters and Papers (1936) by Harry Clair Shriver, p. 175.
  • If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.
  • We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind....Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
  • Courts are apt to err by sticking too closely to the words of a law where those words import a policy that goes beyond them.
    • Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 469 (1928) (Holmes, J., dissenting).
  • Some of her answers might excite popular prejudice, but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


  • The elaborate argument against the constitutionality of the Act if interpreted as we read it, in accordance with its obvious meaning does not need an elaborate answer.
  • Young man, the secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered that I was not God.
    • On his 90th birthday to a journalist (8 March 1931), as quoted in Information 2000: Library and Information Services for the 21st Century, Vol. 1991, Part 2 (1992) by the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, p. 272.
  • There are some men, who as they approach 70, read the Bible and prepare to die. Others prepare themselves to live to 90. It has been my observation that if a man prepares to live to 90, but dies at 70, no harm is done. If however, a man prepares to live to 70 but ends up dying at 90, then his last 20 years will be hell.[citation needed]
  • A river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.
    • Writing for the Court, New Jersey v. New York, et al., 283 U.S. 336, 342 (1931).
  • The interpretation of constitutional principles must not be too literal. We must remember that the machinery of government would not work if it were not allowed a little play in its joints.
    • Writing for the Court, Bain Peanut Co. v. Pinson, 282 U.S. 499, 501 (1931).
  • I have no respect for the passion of equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy — I don't disparage envy but I don't accept it as legitimately my master.
    • Holmes-Laski Letters : The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, 1916 - 1935 (1953), Vol. 2, p. 942.




  • Lawyers spend their professional careers shoveling smoke.
    • Attributed in Watergate and the White House, Volumes 1-2 (1973) by Edward W. Knappman, p. 100; this has also become paraphrased as "Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke".
  • Gentlemen, to the lady without whom I should never have survived for eighty, nor sixty, nor yet thirty years. Her smile has been my lyric, her understanding, the rhythm of the stanza. She has been the spring wherefrom I have drawn the power to write the words. She is the poem of my life.
    • Attribution reported in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989), which states that this is not verified in works about him nor in Magnificent Yankee, the film about him. Holmes expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to Sir Frederick Pollock (May 24, 1929): "For sixty years she made life poetry for me". Mark De Wolfe Howe, ed., Holmes-Pollock Letters (1941), vol. 2, p. 243.



Many quotes attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. were actually authored by his father, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a popular author.

  • The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the closer it contracts.
  • Beware how you take away hope from any human being.
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in his valedictory address to medical graduates at Harvard University (10 March 1858), published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Vol. LVIII, No. 8 (25 March 1858), p. 158; this has also been paraphrased "Beware how you take away hope from another human being".
  • A moment's insight is sometimes worth a lifetime's experience.
  • Pretty much all the honest truth-telling there is in the world is done by children.
    • A paraphrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in "The Poet at the Breakfast-Table" in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 29 (1872), p. 231: "I like children, — he said to me one day at table. — I like 'em, and I respect 'em. Pretty much all the honest truth-telling there is in the world is done by them".
  • To be 70 years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be 40 years old.
    • Almost certainly attributable to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who is, in various sources, credited with having said this in letters to Harriet Beecher Stowe (who turned 70 in 1881) and Julia Ward Howe (who turned 70 in 1889), as well as having made the commented about himself. Holmes, Sr. reached the age of 70 in 1879, while Holmes, Jr. reached that age in 1911, some time after the earliest reports of this quote.
  • A child's education should begin at least one hundred years before he was born.
  • There is no friend like an old friend who has shared our morning days, no greeting like his welcome, no homage like his praise.
  • A man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.
    • Also reported as "One's mind" instead of "A man's mind", and "can never go back" or "never regains" instead of "never goes back"; most likely properly attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
  • Old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
  • Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins.
    • Various permutations of this quote have been attributed to Holmes, but it was actually written by Zechariah Chafee, "Freedom of Speech in Wartime", 32 Harvard Law Review 932, 957 (1919).
  • Keep government poor and remain free.
    • Attributed to Holmes in a speech by Ronald Reagan (June 15,1982); reported as a misattribution by Paul F. Boller, Jr., and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions (1989), p. 46-47.
  • The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
    • Attributed in the Sioux City Journal (6 Jul 2008), p. A8
    • In fact, from a "Valedictory Address, delivered to the Graduating Class of the Bellevue Hospital College" in 1871 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, reprinted in the New York Medical Journal 13 (April 1871): 426.
  • Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.
    • Often given as: A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
    • Or: A mind that is stretched by a new idea can never go back to its old dimensions.
    • Actually by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior, from "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table", originally published in The Atlantic, September 1858.

Quotes about Holmes

  • While a judge of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, when he found the long-winded speeches of the lawyers especially trying, he advised them gravely to take a course of reading risque books, that they might learn to say things by innuendo.
    • Reported in Silas Bent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1932), p. 16.
  • Holmes was exacting in construing a statute and latitudinarian in construing powers under the Constitution. He often said that there was nothing in the Constitution that prevented the country from going to hell if it chose to. But once a statute was clearly constitutional and it became a matter of construing it, Holmes put on his most scrupulous spectacles.
    • Max Lerner, The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, p. 222 (1954).
  • America is not broke. The very wealthy and hugely profitable corporations just aren't paying the taxes that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes more than a century ago, "are the price we pay for a civilized society."
  • An aristocrat in morals as in mind.
    • Owen Wister, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship (1930), p. 130.
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