The House of Truth: A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism 1st Edition
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"For the first time, we have the real story of this incredible little galaxy that included such disparate figures as Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippmann, and Gutzon Borglum, and reached out to cultivate and invigorate the aged Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes--with profound and lasting influence on the course of American politics. Brad Snyder tells this story with verve and insight. This is a major work in the history of this nation's public life." -- John Milton Cooper, Jr., author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
"With his deep understanding of history and the law, Brad Snyder has crafted a notably illuminating and refreshing book. Deeply researched and finely written, The House of Truth brings to life a group of brilliant friends whose passion for justice helped shape what became known as the American Century." -- David Maraniss, author of Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story
"This dazzling book provokes reconsideration of the Progressive era, legal reform and modern American liberalism. I know of no other work that so ably transports its readers into the packed and exciting years of the early twentieth century." -- Laura Kalman, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
"The author's focus on the significance of the Supreme Court makes the book unusually timely. An accomplished, authoritative history of American liberalism."--Kirkus
"Lengthy, lively, and exhaustively researched... At its best, which is much of the text, The House of Truth does what history can do to evoke the past, explain its issues, re-create its personages and illuminate the present."--The Wall Street Journal
"The legal historian Brad Snyder has reconstructed the glories of this group house in a bulging, careful study of its inhabitants... Snyder's account usefully maps a hinge moment in American political history."--The Atlantic, Franklin Foer
"This is a highly readable volume from which both experts and the merely curious can profit."--CHOICE Reviews
About the Author
Brad Snyder teaches constitutional law, civil procedure, twentieth century American legal history, and sports law at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written two critically acclaimed books about baseball, including A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, and contributed articles to Slate and the Washington Post. He has also appeared on ESPN, C-SPAN, and in HBO and New York Times documentaries. For many years, he lived two blocks away from the House of Truth in Washington, DC, where he and his family still reside.
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Idealistic and brilliant young men--mostly from Ivy League schools-- who once lived together in Washington, D.C., and their band of friends who visited with them, shared a progressive vision for the future government of our country. From this start, we come to know how their intertwined careers unfolded, some times in disappointment, but mostly in high-profile success.
While national elective politics was important to them, even more so was the U.S. Supreme Court and its evolving role as to whether the Constitution should be interpreted mainly to protect property rights or to protect individual rights,such as for a fair criminal trial or for state minimum wage protections.
While Justice Holmes is the central figure in this tale, many other influential and interesting people populate these pages. And many interesting events, from how Mount Rushmore came about to the Sacco-Vanzetti case.
Also, if you think U.S. Supreme Court nomination politics just started within the last few decades, think again.
Professor Snyder writes with knowledge and ease about events and personalities that shaped our current society.This is neither dry-as-dust history nor dumbed-down history. Instead, it is history at its finest.
So the author is telling many stories in one. It is also challenging at times to decide what is the focus of the book. Initially, I assumed it was the Supreme Court, its members, and the lawyers who interacted with it. However the author is also principally concerned with the evolution of American progressivism into American liberalism. This theme pops up throughout the book (contrasting, e.g., Frankfurter with Lippman), but I am still not clear on how the author sees the distinction. Perhaps one sustained discussion would have been better.
There are so many fascinating topics covered that the book remains lively and stimulating throughout. For example, the reader learns about the key role played by the New Republic, particularly in terms of reformulating Holmes into a liberal icon due to his dissents; some interesting dimensions of TR and the 1912 campaign; the perhaps excessive faith liberals placed upon experts to improve government; how one carves the side of a mountain into Mount Rushmore; Brandeis and Frankfurters' role in the Zionist campaign to implement the Balfour Declaration; the Red Scare at Harvard that almost cost Frankfurter his HLS position; important aspects of the Sacco-Vanzetti case which the author sees as the key call to action for liberals in the 1920's; and the adjustment by liberals from seeing the Court only as a roadblock into realizing its potential to further their goals.
Surprisingly, the author skillfully manages to keep all these topics and individuals in a comprehensive organizational scheme so the reader does not get lost in all these multiple dimensions. For me, I was most happy with the extensive attention paid to Holmes and Brandeis--I learned a few new things despite having studied these guys for 50 years or so. This is because the amount of research conducted by the author (hence, all those pages of notes) is simply superb. Also, the book is noticeably enhanced by abundant and quite rare photos (such as Holmes' death mask), many of which I had never seen before. On the critical side, two points: (1) way, way too much attention and pages are devoted to S-V; (2) sculptor Borghum is given far more pages (in an already very long book) than I think he deserves given the themes of the book. However one looks at it, this is simply a majestic scholarly achievement worth the many years the author devoted to researching and writing it. As Holmes might say, "well done, young fella!
All of them were upset with the more conservative strain of the Taft Administration as compared to Teddy Roosevelt’s and all of them want to move away from the laissez faire philosophy of the 19th century and to move towards a regulated economy run by disinterested experts. Their attitudes were in response to the emergence of an industrial society that was a far cry from the Jeffersonian vision of a democracy based on yeoman farmers. Simply put they wanted to use Hamiltonian means to achieve liberal ends.
It is all so remarkable to read that the Washington D.C. of those days was a very small town and many of the residents and visitors had ready access to the leading figures of government from the president on down. And boy did they use that access, especially during the Wilson Administration. We see Frankfurter running the War Labor Board, Borglum investigating fraud in aviation procurement and Lippmann writing what was to become Wilson’s Fourteen Points and become part of the U.S. negotiation team at Versailles.
Snyder shows how Brandeis and Frankfurter influenced Holmes to become a leading civil libertarian on the Court as they applaud his pro-regulatory views. The book spends far too much time on the liberal cause celeb of the 1920s, the Sacco-Vanzetti case. To be sure in a strict legal sense they were victims of a miscarriage of justice but as Snyder tells us in an endnote, modern scholarship suggests that Sacco was guilty. He should have been more honest in noting that upfront.
Snyder also shows us how Frankfurter sent his best students to be law clerks for the Supreme Court. One notable success was Dean Acheson Truman’s Secretary of State who clerked for Brandeis. Two others mentioned did not turn out as well. Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran clerked for Holmes was an architect of the New Deal, but later be became one of Washington’s great “fixers.” Many followed in that tradition by going to Washington to do good and ended up doing well. The other clerk he sent to Holmes was Alger Hiss, the notorious Soviet Spy.
What I liked about the denizens of 1727 19th Street was that unlike too many of today’s progressives, they really believed in free speech and that Frankfurter and Brandeis were full-throated supporters of the Zionist project. Although Snyder carefully notes Lippmann’s move to the Right, he hardly spends time on how later in life Frankfurter became one of the leading conservatives on the Supreme Court. He stayed true to his belief that courts should give great deference to elected legislatures. Finally Snyder doesn’t deal with the dark side of the administrative state where nameless and faceless bureaucrats, many with heavy political agendas, dictate practically every nook and cranny of American life.
Nevertheless for readers who slog through the book, they will get a real sense of ferment of ideas that made liberalism a major force in our society.