Brandeis: A Free Man’s Life

Plunkett Lake Press
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“Louis D. Brandeis was a great lawyer and a great judge. He was also a zealous champion of the common man, a millionaire three times over, an ardent Zionist, a complex, sometimes inconsistent, lovable individual. Even the most intransigent of his legal and political foes admit today that Brandeis was one of the makers of modern America, a man whose influence upon our thought and institutions can hardly be overestimated. For the last six years Alpheus Thomas Mason, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, has been working upon a monumental authorized biography... There can be no question that it is a triumph of research and organization, clear, precise and comprehensive. Mr. Mason has quoted copiously from Brandeis’ speeches, letters and judicial opinions. He has delved deeply into corporation finances and legal technicalities. One could not reasonably ask for more information about Brandeis than Mr. Mason has assembled...

[Brandeis’] philosophy... was based upon a generous concern for the welfare of the underdog. Brandeis often supported it with economic facts, rather than with judicial precedents. To foster the social welfare of the common man Brandeis defended an increase in the powers of Government to control and regulate the affairs of the people. Brandeis was the spiritual father of much of the New Deal, the collateral godfather of Henry Wallace. And yet, it was Brandeis who earlier in his career said, ‘Our Government does not grapple successfully with the duties which it has assumed, and should not extend its operations at least until it does.’

Louis D. Brandeis was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1856. In spite of his frail body, precarious health and the astounding quantities of work he habitually performed, he lived to be nearly 85. After several years of study abroad he entered the Harvard Law School at 18. There his precocious brilliance was so great that his academic record has never been rivaled before or since. With such a record many jobs were open to him. He chose to begin practice in St Louis, but soon returned to Boston, where his success as a corporation lawyer was immediate and spectacular. But Brandeis was a reformer who believed in human rights before property rights, people before law, facts before precedents. It wasn’t long before he became an active champion of civic reform and then of national reform. Mr. Mason calls him a ‘people’s attorney.’

Brandeis sought and fought celebrated cases involving questions of business practices and social justice. ‘My special field of knowledge is figures,’ he said. He overwhelmed insurance men, railroad men and bankers with his detailed knowledge of their businesses. ‘It has been one of the rules of my life that no one shall ever trip me on a question of fact.’ Brandeis exposed abuses of capitalism because he contended that they hastened socialism, which he opposed. He fought monopolies, believing them inefficient as well as unethical, and opposed the closed shop, believing it unjust. ‘I think there is no man or body of men whose character will stand absolute power, and I should no more think of giving absolute power to unions than I should of giving to capital monopoly power.’

While Brandeis infuriated ultra-conservative financial leaders and made headlines flutter with his attacks upon the evils of industrial life insurance, upon the monopolistic and financially unsound structure of the New Haven Railroad, upon the general railroad effort to raise freight rates and upon the steel trust, his own ideas developed. He fought not only in the courts as a brilliant lawyer, but by means of publicity. He made speeches, granted interviews, wrote articles, rounded up pressure letters. And in all of these he preached the concepts he made famous: the need of regularity in employment, the need of more efficient management, ‘the curse of bigness,’ the irresponsible use made by some banks of ‘other people’s money.’

So it was no wonder that Brandeis made enemies, that when Wilson nominated him to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court plenty of prominent individuals almost made the air of the Senate subcommittee room blue with their fury. But the appointment went through and Brandeis’ vast store of information, his industry and his idealism proved invaluable to the court. Mr. Mason says that he wrote his great dissents because he was a partisan of a theory of social justice which was opposed to that held by the court majority. Holmes, on the other hand, he says, dissented because his enlightened skepticism kept him from siding with either group and left him free to decide pure constitutionality untroubled by philosophic formulas.” — Orville Prescott, The New York Times

“Professor Mason has written more than an authoritative record and interpretation of what he calls in his suggestive subtitle ‘A Free Man’s Life.’ This stimulating, highly readable book is also a chronicle of the processes of American democracy at work. This is a biography with a larger meaning — on all counts, it deserves a wide audience.” — Harvey Bresler, The New York Times

“In a great biography the author has done full justice to a great man — and given it a symbolism that makes it virtually a composite of American social history during a half century. Rooted in years of study, evidenced by previous publications on Brandeis, the biographer reveals to his readers Louis Brandeis, the people’s lawyer who became a Justice of the Supreme Court. He has done a magnificent job, covering every phase of his life, with main focus on his professional and public service, but with enough of his personal life, enough of his friends — and his enemies — and the personalities who crossed his path, enough of anecdote and minor incident, to give the book- and its subject — lasting vitality.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[Brandeis’] life, as Professor Mason recounts it, was an unending series of causes and campaigns. He threw himself into them with gusto. He said of himself that he ‘would rather fight than eat.’... [Brandeis] was indeed a great man, as Mr. Mason’s biography makes clear. It is primarily a public and political biography; the intimate man is implied rather than described. But Professor Mason within the limits he has set has done a splendid job of research; he has told the story in great detail with care, precision, and detachment... He has done well to quote copiously from Brandeis who spoke and wrote with verve and with an eye to education and action.” — Louis L. Jaffe,University of Chicago Law Review

“[A] superior, full-length biography... [Brandeis] was the arch foe of monopoly in industry, stood out against the closed shop in labor relations, and had no faith in socialism. Always, as Professor Mason stresses again and again, his method was to achieve complete mastery of the facts in relation to any problem in which he became interested and then to promote what he deemed to be sound solutions, enlisting aid in every conceivable quarter; keeping up a stream of advocacy and comment, signed and unsigned; stimulating others to do likewise; and giving of his substance as well as of his time and energy to almost every cause he attacked-leaving nothing to chance and no stone unturned. All this as a private citizen, while practicing law in the city of Boston... All hail... to Professor Mason for presenting us with this full length history of the embodiment of a living ideal. Into it have gone exhaustive study of the correspondence and documents and firsthand knowledge of the subject. This book will undoubtedly be widely read, as it should be; and as it is read, the Brandeis influence will be strengthened and prolonged in American life. Such a work is a major contribution to society, as well as a source of unending pleasure to the reader.” — Ralph F. Fuchs, Texas Law Review

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About the author

Alpheus Thomas Mason (1899-1989), McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Princeton University, was born in a small farming and fishing village outside Snow Hill, Maryland. He received his BA from Dickinson College in 1920 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1923. After teaching at Trinity College (now Duke University), he joined the Princeton faculty in 1925 and became a full professor in 1936. After his retirement from Princeton in 1968, Professor Mason taught until 1980 at 15 institutions in the United States, Japan and Israel, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Barnard College, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia.

One of the country’s foremost judicial biographers, Professor Mason authored 22 books, including four volumes on Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis, a study of Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, one on Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and several on critical periods and issues in the history of the Supreme Court. His course in constitutional interpretation was voted several times by Princeton students as one of the school’s toughest courses.

His Brandeis, A Free Man’s Life sold over 50,000 copies and remained on the best-seller list for five months in 1947. His co-authored textbook, American Constitutional Law: Introductory Essays and Selected Cases, was first published in 1954 and remains popular over sixty years later in its 16th edition.

His Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law earned the Francis Parkman Prize in history and the Liberty and Justice Award from the American Library Association, which called the book “the most distinguished book of 1956 in history and biography.”

Professor Mason was one of the few political scientists to hold a visiting membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930’s. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963 and served as vice president of the American Political Science Association.

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Additional Information

Plunkett Lake Press
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Published on
Aug 9, 2019
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Biography & Autobiography / Lawyers & Judges
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