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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.
©2013 Thomas Healy (P)2013 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"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
5 out of 5 stars
By Jean on 09-23-13

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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38 of 40 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Terri on 02-07-14


Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes but I would warn them of the author's generous assumption that the reader/listener already has a basic knowledge of legal terms and processes. If you're a lawyer or US law aficionado you'll probably breeze right through the book. But if you're a layperson like mysel, you may find it difficult to muddle through. However, the author unfolds the story with such momentum and recounts with riveting detail the events that modified the interpretation of our First Amendment rights (from its inception through today) that my desire to thoroughly comprehend this continuing metamorphosis far outweighed the laborious process of educating myself in "US Law 101".

What did you like best about this story?

The historical process of defining the legal interpretation of First Amendment rights as we know it today is fascinating! "The Great Dissent" has sharpened my critical thinking skills and provoked self-examination of my own limited and prejudiced understanding of a constitutional right that until now I unwittingly generalized and took for granted.

What about Danny Campbell’s performance did you like?

Much if the novel consists of text taken directly from witness accounts and historical archives. The manner in which people talked and wrote varies greatly from how we communicate today. With poetic justice, Danny Campbell recounts these events flawlessly.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Yes. But to reveal that moment would create a spoiler. It is however revealed in the Epilogue.

Any additional comments?

My advice to a layperson of U.S. Law who is considering reading this book is to familiarize yourself with the following beforehand:1. Blackstonian view of free speech2. Espionage Act of 19173. Sedition Act of 1798 and 19184. Bolshevist5. Legal intent vs. lay intent as defined and understood in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Once I educated myself on the above and with a dictionary of legal terms/definitions at my side, I read this book with great enthusiasm!

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13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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