Hiss and Holmes

78 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2002

See all articles by G. Edward White

G. Edward White

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: May 2002


Alger Hiss was legal secretary (law clerk) for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes during the Supreme Court's 1929 Term. Hiss worked for Holmes from early October, 1929, through late September, 1930, remaining with Holmes over the summer of 1930, which Holmes spent in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. After completing his year with Holmes, Hiss joined a Boston law firm. Hiss was the first of Holmes's legal secretaries to spend a year with him after the death of Holmes's wife of 57 years, Fanny Dixwell, and the first to assume a longtime role of Fanny's, reading aloud to Holmes from books that were unrelated to law and designed to entertain or to provoke Holmes's intellectual curiosity. Hiss was also one the first of Holmes's legal secretaries to get married during his service with Holmes. When he married Priscilla Fansler in December, 1929, that act was in violation of a "rule" of the Holmes clerkship, that Holmes's clerks remain single so that they were not prevented by domestic responsibilities from representing Holmes at Washington social functions or otherwise being available to him on evenings or weekends. Hiss repeatedly described his year with Holmes as the most rewarding in his life, and Holmes as the single greatest influence upon him.

This article seeks to examine the details of Hiss's secretarial year with Holmes to see if they shed any light on subsequent events in Hiss's career, particularly his decision to become an agent for Soviet military intelligence in 1934, and to pass United States government documents and other information to the Soviets from that year through 1945, when he was forced to resign from the State Department because of a security probe. In 1948 Hiss was accused by Whittaker Chambers, in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, of having committed espionage in the 1930s (along with Chambers, who claimed he had been a courier for Hiss and other Soviet agents). Hiss denied the charges, was subsequently indicted and convicted of perjury, and served 44 months in jail. From the time he was first publicly named as a Soviet agent to his death in 1996, Hiss persistently maintained that he was innocent. But recently released evidence in U.S. and Soviet archives, taken together with some previously available testimony of persons connected with Soviet intelligence in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, supports Chambers's charges against Hiss.

Many persons have premised their belief in Hiss's innocence on the persistence and vehemence of his denials of any engagement with the Soviets. If one starts from the premise that Hiss knew that his denials were false, yet chose to enlist numerous persons, including family members, in his effort at vindication, some explanation for that posture seems in order. This article considers whether any clues to such an explanation might be found in Hiss's year as Holmes's legal secretary. It concludes that two of the central events of that year--Hiss's successful effort to persuade Holmes to allow Hiss to assume Fanny's role of reading aloud to him, and his equally successful effort to marry Priscilla Fansler in violation of Holmes's rule about the marital status of his secretaries--reveal some defining qualities of Hiss's temperament, qualities that would be consistent with his subsequently undertaking secret espionage for the Soviets, and also with vigorously maintaining that he had not done so.

Suggested Citation

White, G. Edward, Hiss and Holmes (May 2002). UVA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 02-5, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=311869 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.311869

G. Edward White (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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HOME PAGE: http://www.law.virginia.edu/lawweb/faculty.nsf/PrF

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