"A Conservative Among Liberals, and a Liberal Among Conservatives": the Life of Learned Hand
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“A Conservative Among Liberals, and a Liberal Among Conservatives”:
The Life of Learned Hand
Gerald Gunther. Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge. New York: Knopf, 1994. xxi 680 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $35.00.

In January 1947 Judged Learned Hand reached the age of seventy-five. A member of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals for twenty-three years, and before that a federal district judge for fifteen, his birthday was an occasion for praise more lavish than even a jurist of his long tenure might reasonably have expected. The American Bar Association hailed him as “the best judge in America.” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called him “the wisest American judge.” Life magazine described him as “the judicial giant whom the U.S. Supreme Court missed.” Other tributes also strained for superlatives, praising his “clarity of thought,” his “cogency of reasoning,” and declaring him “the foremost jurist of the English-speaking world.” The Harvard Law Review dedicated an entire issue to Hand, an alumnus of both the college and law school, “whose wisdom and eloquence have made his seventy-fifth birthday an occasion to be celebrated by all who serve the law” (pp. 573–74).

Despite the encomiums, Learned Hand was prey all his life to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. One of the most impressive features of Gerald Gunther’s magnificent biography is its exploration of the contrast between the public recognition accorded Hand and his deeply rooted private uncertainties. Gunther, who clerked for Hand in 1953–1954 and who admits that the judge “remains my idol still,” has succeeded brilliantly in his goal of “pictur[ing] him fully, warts and all” (p. xviii). Gunther never flinches from describing what he variously terms Hand’s “uncertainties and shaky self-esteem” (p. 431), “the dark undercurrent of his indecisiveness” (p. 431), “his almost masochistic penchant for self-doubt and self-criticism” (p. 513), “his brooding lack of self-esteem” (p. 575), or “his own fearful nature” (p. 586). Hand recognized these traits in himself: in 1952, when the illustrator of “The Timid Soul” died, Hand expressed a “sense of personal loss” and noted that he had often wished to ask the cartoonist “by what mystic power of divination he came to know the intimate springs of my own self without ever [End Page 296] meeting me; for Caspar Milquetoast appeared to me accurately and specifically personally biographic” (p. 586).

Gunther traces Hand’s personal insecurity, in the first instance, to a specter that haunted him all his life: an idealized image of his father. A remote, bookish man, unable or unwilling to establish a warm and loving relationship with his son, Samuel Hand was a prominent lawyer in Albany, New York who briefly held an interim appointment to the New York State Court of Appeals. He died in 1886, leaving Learned, then fourteen years of age, with “a larger-than-life model of excellence that he might strive to emulate but, he felt, could never match.” However inflated Learned’s image of his father, and however much his inclination to embellish that image over the years, it was a constant source of self-doubt and “curbed his sense of self-worth” (pp. 5–9).

One reason why he accepted this notion of his father as “an intellectual giant” was because his mother, Lydia Coit Learned Hand, “incessantly drilled the image of paternal perfection into her son.” An overly protective mother who “poured out an inexhaustible flow of warm, protective concern,” she had as damaging an effect on Learned Hand as did his absent father. Even after he became a federal district judge in 1909, “she expected — and received — daily letters from him.” Gunther concludes: “His mother’s solicitude was clearly one of the causes of his lifelong anxiety, for he never thought he was doing enough for her. Despite his continuing flow of letters and frequent visits, he would apologize when he had to skip writing for a day or send only an abbreviated note” (p. 10). He would, in fact, apologize “guiltily and profusely” for even imagined slights. “Her mixture of physical and psychological complaints, her suspicion of anyone who threatened...