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The Magnificent Yankee

The Magnificent Yankee(1951)

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Novelist Owen Wister, tells the life story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and begins his tale in 1902, when Holmes, at the age of 61, left his home in Boston to serve as a Supreme Court justice in Washington, D.C.: After they settle into their new home, Holmes and his wife Fanny Bowditch Holmes visit the site of the 1864 Union attack against the Bloody Angle, a Civil War battle in which Holmes bravely fought as a union soldier. Holmes revels in the idea that he will be serving on a court with confederate soldiers he fought against in the war, but his optimistic wife encourages her husband to look to the future and continue to fight for his country. The cynical congressman Adams, the great grandson of President John Adams, regularly visits the couple and warns Holmes that, though President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Holmes to the court, Roosevelt is a detriment to the country. One day, despite the success of their marriage, Fanny tells her husband that she sees herself as a lesser wife because she is unable to bear him any children, but Holmes lovingly assures her that he has little interest in producing heirs. Running his office from his home, Holmes hires the top graduate of the Harvard law school as his secretary each year. Both Fanny and Holmes agree that these men, over the course of their year of tutelage under Holmes, might give them the pleasure of parenthood. Following his swearing-in ceremony, Holmes and his fellow jurists debate the significance of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and later hear arguments both for and against the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. When Holmes indicates his opposition to the anti-trust act, Roosevelt, a supporter, launches a personal attack on Holmes, saying that he could "carve a judge with more backbone out of a banana." Although the act is voted into law by a majority of five to four, Roosevelt continues his grudge against Holmes and vows to have him thrown out of the White House if he ever catches him there. Managing his staff with unyielding authority, Holmes issues an order prohibiting his secretaries from marrying while in his service. The edict is put to a test when Baxter, one of the judge's secretaries, resigns so that he can marry his sweetheart. Fanny, who believes that "a lonely heart is not the best heart to serve the law," urges Holmes to reconsider his rule and reject Baxter's resignation. Holmes eventually concedes that Fanny is right and decides to keep Baxter. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominates Holmes's friend Judge Louis Brandeis to a seat on the court, the first Jewish judge to be considered. During the six months of congressional hearings and fierce debate over the nomination, Holmes defends the nominee and facilitates Brandeis' confirmation. Holmes is soon dubbed "The Great Dissenter," but together with Brandeis, he builds a reputation for progressive judicial thought. Their friendship deepens as they defend legalizing labor unions and help define freedom of speech. While the majority of the court often votes against him, over the years Holmes enjoys the privilege of seeing many cases reversed in favor of his original vote. In 1921, many years after his arrival in Washington, Holmes, now a distinguished justice, celebrates his eightieth birthday with his many secretaries, whom he calls his "sons," but the celebration is soured by the fact that Holmes, despite his seniority, is passed over for the appointment of Chief Justice. In 1929, just before her death, Fanny secures a promise from her husband that he will continue his work on the court after her death. Holmes remains on the court until he reaches the age of ninety. Soon after Holmes retires, the stock market crashes, forcing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to close the country's banks for the first time in the nation's history. Roosevelt makes an appointment to visit Holmes to consult with the departing justice after the crisis. As Holmes proudly prepares to receive the president, he rehearses the only advice he knows to give the president, that in times of war one must "fight like hell" for one's country. As a final tribute to his faith in jurisprudence and his country, Holmes bequeaths the majority of his estate to the United States government.