Photograph courtesy of United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a31794
Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941) was the first Jewish person to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the Supreme Court on January 28, 1916, Louis Brandeis was already nationally known for his progressive views. Due at these views and ethnicity, his appointment aroused a storm of protest among large segments of the nation’s legal establishment. None the less, he was confirmed and took the oath on June 5, 1916.
Louis Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1856, the son of cultivated Bohemian Jewish parents who had immigrated to the United States from Prague (than part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Schooled in Louisville and in Germany, he was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1873 and graduated three years later at the head of his class. After Harvard, Brandeis embarked on a legal career in St. Louis, but soon returned to Boston. In Boston he developed a large and successful private practice, and became well-known for his defense of the public interest. As attorney for the New England Policy-Holders’ Protective Committee, he unearthed sufficient evidence against the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York to initiate a legislative investigation to replace the corrupt insurance system; he then created a plan for savings-bank life insurance which was inaugurated in Massachusetts in 1907. As the Progressive movement reached full tide, Brandeis also became involved in the problems of railroad rate regulation, labor-management relations and wage and hour laws.
His name first became nationally known with the publication in 1914 of his book Other People’s Money and How the Banker’s Use It, which critiqued corporate power in the early 20th century. The book proved instrumental in effecting the passage of both the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act. Once President Wilson placed Brandeis on the Supreme Court, he championed, along with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the right to dissent, and they often stood against the majority of the Court. On Whitney v. California (1927), the United States Supreme Court decision, Brandeis argued that free speech must not in any way be impaired unless there was a “clear and present danger.”
Although Brandeis did not support all of the legislative measures of the New Deal period, much of the legislation enacted during Roosevelt’s famous first “Hundred Days” reflected Brandeis’ influence through his ideas as implemented by Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law school, Benjamin Cohen, and Thomas Corcoran. Louis Brandeis terminated his service to the Supreme Court on February 13, 1939.
Louis Brandeis House
More than anywhere else, the old whaling village of Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is intimately associated with the life of Justice Brandeis. He and his wife came to Chatham for the first time in the summer of 1922, and liked the place so well that the next year they purchased a modest, remotely-situated house on the Oyster River, to which they returned annually from their Washington, D.C. apartment for the rest of their lives. Brandeis would work on law cases through the Chatham summers while also finding time to relax and be with his family.
The life-style of Louis Brandeis is accurately reflected in his Cape Cod home, which is a spartan, forthright, shingled structure, and one-and-a-half stories high. The main portion of the house, apparently built in the early 19th century, is typical of the area’s vernacular architecture. It is characteristically rectangular in shape, with a symmetrical, five-bay façade and a steeply-pitched roof from which projects a central chimney stack. The shed dormers on both slopes of the roof were probably added a short time prior to Brandeis’ purchase of the property, as was the two-story rear kitchen and dormitory wing, and also the single-story rear dependency which sits at right angles to the main structure and contains a laundry, a maid’s room, three guest rooms, and a garage. About 25 feet northwest, another rustic, shingled outbuilding once provided additional summer sleeping quarters. Formerly, a windmill, situated between the sleeping hut and the house supplied the water for the household use. In 1944, three years after Brandeis’ death, the windmill was destroyed by a hurricane.
The Louis Brandeis House was automatically listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 28, 1972, when it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
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