Seattle, WA: Last evening I joined David Skover to see (yet again) Stephen Sondheim‘s dark musical, Assassins. Afterwards, I turned to David and said: “Well, not all of those assassinations proved for the worst. Holmes, after all, owed a debt to the anarchist who murdered President McKinley.” So here is a page from that story, the true one that is.
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September 6, 1901 is one of the most important dates in American constitutional history, though few think of it as such. On that day Leon Czolgosz attempted to assassinate President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Though the President would live several more days, the two shots the anarchist fired ultimately killed McKinley (he died on September 14th) and thereby put in motion a string of events that led to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. becoming the fifty-eighth Justice on the Supreme Court.
But for the death of the President, the seat to be vacated by Justice Horace Gray would not have gone to then Chief Justice Holmes of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. No — President McKinley had other plans. Here’s what those plans were:
As the summer of 1901 wound down, it became apparent to McKinley and others that Justice Gray was ill and was likely to retire soon. So the President turned to his friend John Davis Long, then Secretary of the Navy, for advice. Though Long had nominated Holmes to the Massachusetts bench when he was governor, he did not recommend him for the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, Long urged the president to select Alfred Hemenway, his law partner. And Hemenway was prepared to accept the position if and when offered.
As it turned out, however, Horace’s delay in retiring combined with McKinley’s assassination changed everything. Thereafter, Henry Cabot Lodge, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and one of Theodore Roosevelt’s close friends, recommend Holmes for Gray’s seat when the ailing Justice stepped down in July 1902. Roosevelt acted on Lodge’s suggestion and nominated Holmes. By December the Senate confirmed him, unanimously.
As ironic as it was, Oliver Wendell Holmes owed his justiceship to a crazed anarchist.