A First-Class Intellect And A Second-Class Temperament
In the household of the Oliver Wendell Holmes family, there resided two wits. One, the senior, was also the superior. At least insofar as that ancient craft of esprit was concerned, the first Holmes was the better of the two. That’s not to say, however, that the elder Holmes earned this distinction by mere dint of his age. Yes, he certainly predated the younger and expired quite sooner (having lived through the first half of the nineteenth century while his son inhabited the last) but he was forever the more youthful at heart. Unlike Holmes Jr., Senior harbored in his breast an often jocose, always poetic streak that made him dashingly “autocratic”, but only so far as the breakfast table stretched.
By this incomparable wit, I refer of course to America’s finest polymath, poet, and doctor—a veritable Neil De Grasse Tyson of an earlier age. Like our current beloved astrophysicist, whose light-hearted wisdom is a constant stimulant when skies are blue or grey, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. had a similar intellectual and comical appeal—if not a cosmological one to boot. Still, though, in Holmes Sr.’s time, the cosmos was strictly the playhouse of gods. That, however, didn’t stop the good doctor from writing into the heavens his own eternal truths. His aphorisms were endless, his perspicuity vast, and even today we can’t help ourselves from quoting that oft-quoted sage.
His son, better known than his father in this age we call our own, was endowed with all of the senior’s intellect but only a tincture of the wit. Though capacious in learning, unmatched in experience, and ever-ready for a quick and thoughtful dissent, he wasn’t an easy man with whom one could joke. You wouldn’t verbally banter nor risibly spar with him, even with gloves, as you might venture to do with the gentler father; punches would sooner fly to the head and blood to the floor. Even to this day, he’s less known for being happily epigrammatic, more so for being severely didactic. Ever the academician, this tendency did serve him well professionally in the end. It was with this scholarly bent and fighter’s spirit that Holmes Jr. arrived from the Massachusetts bench, to his alma mater Harvard, to the Potomac and ultimately that loftiest of seats.
While sitting on the Supreme Court between the years of 1902-1932, his much-sought-after opinions tended to be of a controversial nature; such might’ve been the expectation of a man who’s since been dubbed the great Court’s “Great Dissenter”. Yet he was very much within the confines of public opinion and the realm of enlightened and (quasi) scientific thought when he announced his rare majority opinion in the infamous case of Buck v. Bell.
In what became his best-known and also most excruciatingly insensitive remark, Holmes Jr. affirmed that a woman could be forced by government edict into sterility. For the sake of the public’s welfare, so the argument went, a lady’s private and otherwise natural right to procreate could be squashed under the thumb of your elected official. It should be said that Holmes Jr. was, not unlike most educated men of his day, an ardent eugenicist. Beginning with the distinguished British polymath Francis Galton (a cousin, in the literal and not the evolutionary sense, of a one Charles Darwin) and carrying over to the health guru and sometime physician Dr. J.H. Kellogg (whose name survives as a synonym for sugar-laden treats), the self-evident truths of eugenics were compelling. Doubtless, they infected lesser intellects than Holmes’s.
Nevertheless, he, as a Supreme Court justice of these United States, believed unfailingly in the superiority of race and the decrepitude of genes. He believed, as any proper eugenicist would, that color was determinant and intellect an impediment (if, in the case of Bell, its quotient fell too low) to propagating the best of the human species. To obviate what could become a moronic generation of amorous automatons having children but not thoughts, Holmes Jr. decided that something needed to be done. Arguing from this point, and carrying on his back a nearly unanimous court, Holmes Jr. savagely concluded the Buck v. Bell case by slamming the gavel and exclaiming in a huff that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”. Perhaps, in an odd way, the Great Dissenter succeeded in cheapening the value of life. In hindsight, it could be said that he anticipated the arguments in favor of abortion in our own day.
This, of course, is the dominant concern vexing the left as we know it today. Abortion, and its legality and its preservation, has excited its apologists as no other topic has or could. It’s in defense of this dubious, court-appointed “right” that so many women and no small number of men have taken to protesting the recent nomination of the Supreme Court Justice who might undo their hard-won gains. That man, of course, is Brett Kavanaugh.
One can imagine how our hoary, bewhiskered Holmes Jr. might receive our upstart Kavanaugh. I think he would do so in the exact opposite way to how he embraced our thirty-second president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As it turned out, the last year of Holmes Jr.’s three decades on the bench was the first of FDR’s decade and change on Pennsylvania Ave. The old judge left because of age, though the possibility of a court saturated with Democrats was uncomfortably near. Nevertheless, the progressive, Republican justice of Civil War and Harvardian acclaim would die two years into the progressive liberal’s first of three terms.
Yet there was just enough time between FDR’s inauguration and his own fast-approaching resignation to throw a penetrating quip the new president’s way. After having had the opportunity briefly to watch the New Deal Democrat up close, Holmes Jr. scathingly, wittily remarked that this cousin of a Rough Rider was of a “second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament”. I’m not so sure that the second clause proved capable in easing the pain of the first. Doubtless, the president (and after him, posterity) thought better of his much-abused intellect. Nevertheless, the characterization seems to have been astute; all modern hagiography aside, most contemporary observers and yet-unknown historians agreed that FDR was the possessor of a deeply engaging manner but a shallow mind.
And while he’s long since passed, Holmes Jr.’s insight doesn’t stop with FDR; it continues to resonate with us today. Reverse the clauses he originally attributed to Roosevelt nearly a century ago, and we’re left with a strikingly apt description of the once disreputable, now Honorable Brett Kavanaugh. In its new formulation, as if it were a rhetorical conversion, we attribute to the volatile Kavanaugh the following: he is, as it were, “a second-class temperament and a first-class intellect”. This, I think, captures the man well. Kavanaugh, from what we’ve seen thus far, has all the claims to erudition and the vicissitudes of emotion. Two Yale degrees in his back pocket and a career sitting on the federal court, and even those weighty accolades can’t steady his outbursts.
In time, he might learn to control his emotions. When we meet him then, adjudicating as he surely will be with his hair-trigger irascibility under wraps, we might compare him with the “Great Dissenter”, the subordinate Holmesian wit. Between Kavanaugh and Oliver Jr, though, the elder’s superiority in that category will forever be secure.