Jerry Brown and Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Feeling begets feelings and great feelings beget great feelings,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in his January State of the State speech, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The Democratic governor used the line in relation to public education:

“I salute the teachers and the students, the parents and the college presidents, the whole school community. As the great jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, once said when describing what stirs people to action: “Feeling begets feeling and great feeling begets great feeling.” 

As Brown alludes, the original context of the sentence doesn’t refer to public education and, only in the broadest possible way, to education generally.

Holmes, a justice of the US Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, said the words in a May 30, 1884 speech in Keene, New Hampshire. His audience was the John Sedgewick Post No. 4 of the Grand Army of the Republic.

It was Memorial Day and Holmes, wounded several times during extensive combat during the Civil War, took as his subject the relevance of Memorial Day to those who didn’t fight and die in that war, which had ended nearly 20 years before.

Holmes in Uniform

Holmes in Uniform

Holmes insists Memorial Day has meaning for non-veterans. The day “celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith,” says Holmes, named to the high court by President Theodore Roosevelt who was reportedly a fan of an 1895 Memorial Day speech titled “The Soldier’s Faith” given by Holmes.

Holmes, a native of Boston, says “acting with enthusiasm and faith” and “acting greatly” are synonymous.

“To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching.

“More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate.

“One may fall — at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.”

The simple act of remembering the sacrifices and gallantry of those who fought and died – for both the South and the North – provides a lesson to subsequent generations, Holmes says.

“I cannot argue a man into a desire. If he says to me, ‘Why should I seek to know the secrets of philosophy? Why seek to decipher the hidden laws of creation that are graven upon the tablets of the rocks, or to unravel the history of civilization that is woven in the tissue of our jurisprudence, or to do any great work, either of speculation or of practical affairs?’ I cannot answer him; or at least my answer is as little worth making for any effect it will have upon his wishes if he asked why I should eat this, or drink that.

“You must begin by wanting to. But although desire cannot be imparted by argument, it can be by contagion. Feeling begets feeling, and great feeling begets great feeling.

“We can hardly share the emotions that make this day to us the most sacred day of the year, and embody them in ceremonial pomp, without in some degree imparting them to those who come after us.

“I believe from the bottom of my heart that our memorial halls and statues and tablets, the tattered flags of our regiments gathered in the Statehouses, are worth more to our young men by way of chastening and inspiration than the monuments of another 100 years of peaceful life could be.”

For the majority of the speech’s remainder, Holmes recalls fallen comrades, noting that “the dead come back and live with us” on Memorial Day.images-6

But, “grief is not the end of all,” Holmes says.

“I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring.

“As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

As a jurist, Holmes was known for his pithy opinions. Enough were in the minority that he became known as “The Great Dissenter.”

In this instance writing for a unanimous court in Schenck v. United States, Holmes wrote that the First Amendment didn’t protect a person “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic” and created the “clear and present danger” test still used by the court to weigh First Amendment questions.

He was urged by his colleagues to step down when he turned 90, the oldest justice to serve in the court’s history. He died of pneumonia on March 6, 1935, two days short of his 94th birthday.

At his death, he still owned his Civil War officer’s uniform, torn by bullet holes and stained with blood. He also saved the musket balls that wounded him in three separate battles.

He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Some more examples of Holmes’ wit and wisdom:

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

“I don’t generally feel anything until noon, then it’s time for my nap.”

“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

“Fame usually comes to those who are thinking about something else.”

“The secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered that I was not God.”




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1 Comment »

  1. Wonderful rhetoric. Brilliant man.

    Comment by Bill Schreiber — 2.21.2013 @ 2:21 pm

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