Selected Gems of Learned Hand

Selected gems of Learned Hand found in the Spirit of Liberty.

Source: The Spirit of Liberty, papers and addresses of Learned Hand, together with The Bill of Rights The Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures, 1958, by Learned Hand, a facsimile of the 1974 Third Edition, Enlarged, by Alfred A. Knopf, produced by Legal Classics Library, Birmingham, 1989. I

Image: Judge Learned Hand." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D. C. Web. 29 Dec. 2015. <>

  • Thou shalt not ration justice. P. xix, Learned Hand: A Personal Appreciation, Introduction to The Spirit of Liberty by Irving Dilliard, 1952. This quote is stated by Mr. Dilliard to be Judge Hand's "epigrammatic commandment for his fellow members of the bar" spoken at a speech "at the seventy-fifth anniversary dinner of the Legal Aid Society of New York on February 16, 1951...."
  • I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken. P. xxiv, same Introduction. Spoken to "Spencer R. McCulloch, Post-Dispatch special writer, ... as the key to his over-all philosophy, Oliver Cromwell's plea just before the Battle of Dunbar: [quote]. These words Judge Hand said he would like to have written 'over the portals of every church, every courthouse and at every crossroads in the nation.' For, he added, 'it seems to me that if we are to be saved it must be through skepticism.'"
  • Yet with all the attraction that it has, our youth cannot long remain without feeling the narrowness of simply a classification of the world. Life is not a thing of knowing only - nay, mere knowledge has properly no place at all save as it becomes the handmaiden of feeling and emotion. P. 4, Class-Day Oration (1893).
  • We like rather to dream of a body of young men as a live thing, as a tree where all the branches are nourished by a single sap, and where each part is meaningless and incomplete except in connection with its fellows. You may lop away the dead branches, you may bend the trunk, you may dig about it and water it; but leave it to assume its own form, do not constrain the peculiar roots, or you will have a crippled, gnarled monster, and no tree. P. 9, Class-Day Oration (1893).
  • The mid-day sun is too much for most eyes; one is dazzled even with its reflection. Be careful that too broad and high an aim does not paralyze your effort and clog your springs of action. P.9, Class-Day Oration (1893).
  • To be pulled in many opposite ways at once results negatively, but it is not the same thing as to feel no impulse at all. An ass between two bales of hay is said to have died of starvation, but not from indifference. P. 10, Class-Day Oration, (1893).
  • Two conditions are essential to the realization of justice according to law. The law must have an authority supreme over the will of the individual, and such an authority can arise only from a background of social acquiescence, which gives it the voice of indefinitely greater numbers than those of its expositors. Thus, the law surpasses the deliverances of even the most exalted of its prophets; the momentum of its composite will alone makes it effective to coerce the individual and reconciles him to his subserviency. The pious traditionalism of the law has its roots in a sound conviction of this necessity; it must be content to lag behind the best inspiration of its time until it feels behind it the weight of such general acceptance as will give sanction to its pretension to unquestioned dictation. P. 16, The Speech of Justice (1916).
  • The law, being an inherited accumulation, imposes itself on each generation willy-nilly. Any society whose members enter and leave it severally must for very convenience, to say nothing of deeper reasons, proceed by tradition; the neophyte must adopt existing habits and ways of acting, if for no better reason, through inexperience and diffidence. Mere custom will do the rest as he proceeds. And so the rule is canonized, its origins, and therefore its meaning, are ignored. But genuine learning is quite different. P. 26, Mr. Justice Holmes at Eighty-Five (1926).
  • A wise man once said, "Convention is like the shell to the chick, a protection till he is strong enough to break it through." P. 32, The Preservation of Personality (1927).
  • Our dangers, as it seems to me, are not from the outrageous but from the conforming; not from those who rarely and under the lurid glare of obloquy upset our moral complaisance, or shock us with unaccustomed conduct, but from those, the mass of us, who take their virtues and tastes, like their shirts and their furniture, from the limited patterns which the market offers. P. 34, The Preservation of Personality (1927).
  • No doubt one may quote history to support any cause, as the devil quotes scripture.... P. 79, Sources of Tolerance (1930).
  • The condition of our survival in any but the meagerest existence is our willingness to accommodate ourselves to the conflicting interests of others, to learn to live in a social world. P.87, To Yale Law Graduates (1931).
  • I shall ask no more than that you agree with Dean Inge that even though counting heads is not an ideal way to govern, at least it is better than breaking them. P. 92, Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities (1932).
  • My vote is one of the most unimportant acts of my life; if I were to acquaint myself with the matters on which it ought really to depend, if I were to try to get a judgment on which I was willing to risk affairs of even the smallest moment, I should be doing nothing else, and that seems a fatuous conclusion to a fatuous undertaking. P. 93, Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities (1932).
  • And so when I hear so much impatient and irritable complaint, so much readiness to replace what we have by guardians for us all, those supermen, evoked somewhere from the clouds, whom none have seen and none are ready to name, I lapse into a dream, as it were. I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children's are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with anther, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come to straighten the game. Pp. 99-100, Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities (1932).
  • With the courage which only comes of justified self-confidence, he dared to rest his case upon its strongest point, and so avoided that appearance of weakness and uncertainty which comes of a clutter of arguments. Few lawyers are willing to do this; it is the mark of the most distinguished talent. P. 128, In Memory of Charles Neave (1938).
  • John Stuart Mill, he would often begin by stating the other side better than its advocate had stated it himself. P. 131, Mr. Justice Cardozo (1939).
  • ...but he knew it was a judge's duty to decide, not to debate, and the loser who asked him to reopen a decision once made found a cold welcome. P.131, Mr. Justice Cardozo (1939).
  • is made up of a series of judgments on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us. P. 137, On Receiving an Honorary Degree (1939).
  • They taught me, not by precept, but by example, that nothing is more commendable, and more fair, than that a man should lay aside all else, and seek truth; not to preach what he might find; and surely not to try to make his views prevail; but, like Lessing, to find his satisfaction in the search itself. P. 138, On Receiving an Honorary Degree (1939).
  • For, when all is said, as my friend George Rublee likes to put it, the only success is to be a success as a person; and it is still not too late for that. P. 179, At the Fiftieth Anniversary Commencement (1943).
  • Was not the issue this: whether mankind should be divided between those who command and those who serve; between those who use others at their will and those who must submit; whether the measure of a man's power to shape his own destiny should be the force at his disposal? Our nation was founded upon an answer to those questions, and we have fought this war to make good that answer. P. 193, A Pledge of Allegiance (1945).
  • Right knows no boundaries, and justice no frontiers; the brotherhood of man is not a domestic institution. P. 193, A Pledge of Allegiance (1945).
  • As William James says somewhere: "Nature tells all frogs to jump for what looks red and take their chances. If it is only red meat, well and good; if it is red flannel on a hook, in the long run also well and good, though not for that particular frog." P. 197, Simon Flexner (1946).
  • We may win when we lose, if we have done what we can; for by so doing we have made real at least some part of that finished product in whose fabrication we are most concerned: ourselves. P. 297, A Fanfare for Prometheus (1955).
  • I submit to you that we must press along. Borrowing from Epictetus, let us say to ourselves: "Since we are men, we will play the part of Man." P. 298, A Fanfare for Prometheus (1955).
  • What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow. P. 190, The Spirit of Liberty (1944).
  • The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country. P. 190-191, The Spirit of Liberty (1944).