Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand

By in Legal History on February 26, 2013

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Judge Learned Hand is an icon of American Law. Though he was never nominated to our country’s highest court, Hand is nevertheless more frequently quoted by legal scholars and in Supreme Court decisions than any other lower court judge in our history. He was the model for all judges who followed him, setting the standard for the bench with a matchless combination of legal brilliance and vast cultural sophistication.

Hand was also renowned as a superb writer. Now, in Reason and Imagination, Constance Jordan offers a unique sampling of the correspondence between Hand and a stellar array of intellectual and legal giants, including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Berenson, and many other prominent political and philosophical thinkers. The letters–many of which have never been published before–cover almost half a century, often taking the form of brief essays on current events, usually seen through the prism of their historical moment. They reflect Hand’s engagement with the issues of the day, ranging from the aftermath of World War I and the League of Nations, the effects of the Depression in the United States, the rise of fascism and the outbreak World War II, McCarthyism, and the Supreme Court’s decisions on segregation, among many other topics. Equally important, the letters showcase decades of penetrating and original thought on the major themes of American jurisprudence, particularly key interpretations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and will thus be invaluable to those interested in legal issues.

Most of these letters have never before been published, making this collection a priceless window into the mind and life of one of the giants of American law.

One thought on “Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand

  1. Ronald H. Clark
    1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Important Insights into Judge Learned Hand, February 19, 2013
    Ronald H. Clark (WASHINGTON, DC USA) –

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    This review is from: Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand (Hardcover)

    B. Learned Hand (1872-1961) was undoubtedly one of the most significant federal judges in the 20th century. This volume collects important correspondence during his entire life. Serving initially on the Southern District of New York (1909-1924), he eventually was promoted to the Second Circuit (1924-1961), where along with his esteemed cousin Augustus Hand and Thomas Walter Swan, he constituted the great panel during the 1930’s and 1940’s of what was then the second most influential court after the Supreme Court. Hand is the subject of one of the great judicial biographies: Gerald Gunther’s “Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge” (1994; 2011), which along with Hand’s “The Spirit of Liberty”) (3d ed. 1960), collecting many of his important papers and addresses, are very helpful to keep handy when reading this book.

    While Hand had a wide range of correspondents, I found his extensive exchanges with Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippmann, Bernard Berenson, and Charles Wyzanski the most interesting, although many other fascinating individuals (e.g., Justices Holmes, Brandeis and Cardozo; TR; Herbert Croly; Louis Henkin; and Irving Dilliard to name just a few) pop up as well. The selected letters well demonstrate why Hand was so influential and significant in a number of areas:

    One of LH’s most important contributions was in the area of free speech and how the first amendment limits government power, even in time of war and national emergency. As the author of the “Masses” opinion (S.D.N.Y 1917) and the “Dennis” decision (2d Cir. 1950), as well as in his correspondence, Hand grappled with this difficult issue, ultimately rejecting the “clear and present danger” test of his hero, Justice Holmes. The correspondence well illustrates how he struggled with this issue and eventually reached his final position.

    At least as important was his critical assessment of judicial review as practiced by the Supreme Court, and the development of his thinking on what is proper judicial “interpretation” of statutes and the Constitution. His famous lectures, “The Bill of Rights,” show how strictly he defined the judicial freedom to interpret. He was extremely critical of the Warren Court (including the Brown decision), the Court’s 14th amendment due process decisions, as well as his friend Walter Lippmann’s quasi-natural law theories (“the Public Philosophy”). These letters allow him a full opportunity to share his thinking on these issues with the reader, especially in his exchanges with Frankfurter where Hand places reliance upon Edmund Plowden’s guidance expressed in the 16th century.

    The correspondence also demonstrates the wide cultural interests Hand indulged. His letters with Berenson (“BB”) discuss issues of philosophy, art and history. Although he rather dismissed jurisprudence, he was no novice in dealing with challenging philosophical issues. Without the letters, I never would have begun to appreciate this side of Hand. Here was an individual fully intellectually alive until his death at 88.

    These are but a few threads of what emerges from the letters. The editor, an esteemed emerita Professor of English at Claremont, and a Hand granddaughter, has included several additional features which enhance the letters: a valuable introduction; a biography section which identifies individuals who appear in the letters; effective annotations discussing key concepts and legal references; and a fine bibliography. The book runs 435 pages (with index). My only criticism is that Oxford University Press has inflicted very small type on the reader, that caused me a bit of eye strain. Hand has much to say to us today; these letters allow him to fill out the picture of his thinking in a manner that would be foreclosed in judicial decisions or even speeches and articles. And for that, we can all be thankful.

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