INTRODUCTION TO OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES' FAMOUS 1884 MEMORIAL DAY SPEECH

"In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire..."

Judge Richard Posner, in his Introduction to "The Essential Holmes: Selections From the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (University of Chicago Press, 1992) states that "Holmes' true greatness was not as a lawyer, judge or legal theorist in a narrowly professional sense of these words, but as a writer and philosopher... [Holmes'] distinction lies precisely in the infusion of literary skill and philosophical insight into his legal work.."  No better example exists of this literary greatness than this 1884 speech: it is one of the most quoted Memorial Day speeches ever given. On May 30, 1884, the then-Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave an address, his first important public address outside the law. The speech was given in Keene, New Hampshire, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic, in a white painted town hall on the village common.

Link here to the speech.

While this seven page speech is eminently readable in its entirety, this "most quotable of judges" infused the speech with lucid commentary on a variety of topics:

*Holmes' oft-quoted vivid description of Henry Abbott's heroism during the 20th Massachusetts' legendary street fighting in Fredericksburg on Dec. 11, 1862, led many to erroneously assume that Holmes participated in that battle. Holmes' descriptions of the street fighting inspired poet George Henry Bokker to pen "The Crossing at Fredericksburg".

[Link here to an 1895 Memorial Day speech of Holmes entitled: "The Soldier's Faith"]

(c) 1998 by Bob Dame.

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