Prove Yourselves: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Obsessions of Manliness

65 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2016 Last revised: 28 Sep 2016

John M. Kang

St. Thomas University School of Law

Date Written: July 12, 2016


In order for constitutional democracy to endure, Americans must be tough, must be manly — and indeed heroic; or so Oliver Wendell Holmes argued, the famous justice who, in his mid-twenties, was also a thrice wounded veteran of the Civil War.

Holmes is often wrongly portrayed as a social Darwinist or as a political progressive sympathetic to workers or even as a prototypical liberal softy of sorts. Notwithstanding his own words, there were few bases for these accounts. Holmes’s most important opinions dealing with First Amendment were impelled by an idiosyncratic idea of manliness, and in particular, a view of manliness that was derived from his account of martial heroism. He argued that only a manly people who embraced his own brand of heroism could endure the frightening consequences that would be ushered by the political freedom protected by the First Amendment. Only such a heroic people, that is, could tolerate conditions where communists, anarchists, and other subversives threatened to destroy the United States.

Keywords: manhood, manliness, courage, heroic, heroes, subversive speech, anarchist speech, masculinity, masculine

Suggested Citation

Kang, John M., Prove Yourselves: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Obsessions of Manliness (July 12, 2016). West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 118, No. 3, 2016; St. Thomas University School of Law (Florida) Research Paper No. 2016-02. Available at SSRN:

John M. Kang (Contact Author)

St. Thomas University School of Law ( email )

16401 NW 37th Avenue
Miami Gardens, FL 33054
United States
305.474.2460 (Phone)
305.623.2397 (Fax)


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