The Great Dissent

  • by Thomas Healy
  • Narrated by Danny Campbell
  • 10 hrs and 20 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

No right seems more fundamental to American public life than freedom of speech. Yet well into the 20th 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'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.

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What the Critics Say

"Engrossing... An exceptional account of the development of the Constitution's most basic right, and an illuminating story of remarkable friendships, scholarly communication, and the justice who actually changed his mind." (Kirkus Starred Review)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

How a 78 year old man can learn & change his mind

I learned so much from this book. I must admit I had not read or studied anything about the history of the first amendment before. This absorbing book is about the law and also about change, how one man's thinking evolved nearly 100 years ago. For 125 years the first amendment was essentially dead until Holmes wrote his dissent in 1919. Thomas Healy shows us how Holmes was educated/persuaded to change his mind about the meaning and reach of our most fundamental safeguard. His friends, Justice Brandeis, Judge Learned Hand, Harold Laski, Felix Frankfurter, Zechariah Chafee (all teachers at Harvard) and others had discussion, letter exchanges and loaned or gave him books to read. Holmes was a voracious reader and during his summer breaks he devoured books that challenged his thinking. Holmes also had a habit we should all learn, he listened to people who didn't agree with him and set about to learn more about the topic from all view points.

The rule, at the time, borrowed from British practice, was that you could speak and publish freely without fear of prior restraint, but once you had spoken, the State had the freedom to prosecute you. Holmes had written the majority opinion in Debs V U.S. upholding the conviction. Eugene Debs was the Socialist candidate for President. He gave a campaign speech and was arrested after for violation of the Sedition act and sentence to 10 years in prison. I found this interesting because via Audible I had read "1920: The year of six Presidents" by David Pietrusza and "Clarence Darrow" by John A. Farrell. Darrow was Debs attorney. Both these books provided a great deal of information about Debs and the above mentioned case. Holmes had been a defender of the power of government to punish controversial speech. He was a Boston Brahmin and his friends were owners of big business so he dismissed the fight of and for unions and the problems of the workers.
I found it fascinating how Holmes's friend educated him at age 78 to change his mind. . When the Court reconvened in the fall they heard the case Abrams V U.S. Holmes decided to write the dissent opinion in the case and changed the Frist Amendment forever. He provided guidelines to help determine when the speech crossed the line, he stated "clear and present danger of public harm" to be the key. The Abrams case is covered in-depth in the book so I will not spoil it by going into it. Danny Campbell did a good job with the narration. This is a book I am going to read again.
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- Jean

Taking every step with the era's vibrant thinkers

This author has done a wonderful job on many levels. He masterfully weaves together ideas, people, surrounding culture, institutions and events in service of this fine history.

We start with Holmes himself, a figure who (in ways unsuspected by me) bridged quite different eras in thought and national history. Holmes emerges as a bridge between quite disparate thinkers, many of whom might never have occupied the stage of history without him. For example, though a Boston brahmin of perfect pedigree, he risked that standing to stick up for important Jewish legal thinkers (and their ideas) who were being publicly painted with a broad brush of hysterical jingoism by some of Holmes' Harvard elite colleagues. Holmes even at 77 had a remarkable nimbleness, if sometimes slow, with perking his ears to a good new idea, and (despite sometimes giving short shrift in legal opinions, at least for awhile), staying with the ideas, keeping his vigorous discussions open with others, through gnawing unease and rethinking. Ultimately, he emerged at the far side, with formulations many people may take for granted today as "just the way things are."

As a result, I do not fear in posting this review that some bureaucrat might think my opinions seditious and have me arrested, as happened in this (WW1) era aplenty. Holmes (even within his own head, beginning as a Civil War vet wounded in action, his family swords posted prominently in his home, and as shown in his sequence of legal opinions) spans a part of this emergence from a more warlord/absolutist/paternalist state ("right or wrong," as goes the phrase quoted to him here) toward a more complete logical spread of the Enlightenment (via the US Constitution) to allow mere opinion to circulate, even during wartime. This process was very uneven, I see here, and was something like, three steps forward, two steps back, at points like this (the WW1 era and its aftermath). And, we still see echoes of these themes today.
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- Phil O.

Book Details

  • Release Date: 08-26-2013
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio