No right seems more fundamental to American public 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, law professor Thomas Healy
reconstructs in vivid detail Holmes’ 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. Download and start listening now!