852: RARE – Justice Holmes’s Two Annotated Copies of The Common Law

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. owned at least two copies of the first, 1881 printing of his The Common Law, both of which he annotated over many years with corrections, citations, and new thoughts. These copies survive at Harvard, and one of them, the copy in Special Collections at the Harvard Law School Library, has recently been digitized.


This note will describe each copy.

The Common Law—certainly one of the classic works in American legal scholarship—derived from a series of lectures Holmes gave before the Lowell Institute in Boston in November and December 1880.


He quickly revised the lectures for publication, and on March 3, 1881, five days before his fortieth birthday, wrote his name and the date on the title-page of the copy sent over by his publisher, Little, Brown, and Co. Holmes began promptly annotating the book, noting, for example, on a fly-leaf the appearance of articles reviewing the work, and in the margins of the text, corrections brought to his attention by correspondents. (A few of these letters Holmes tucked into the book itself; images of all the letters and ephemera that have accompanied the copy are included in the digitization.) This copy went to Washington when he joined the Supreme Court and was bequeathed to Harold Laski, who gave it to the Harvard Law School Library in September, 1940.


The second copy that Holmes annotated can today be found in Harvard University’s Houghton Library. It bears Holmes’s signature on the title-page and has annotations in his hand that duplicate many of those in the HLS Library’s copy, although there are a few that are unique. Without further investigation, it seems safe to conclude that this second copy was kept at his home on Beacon Street or at his Beverley Farms summer house; the only extraneous item now found in the copy is a postcard from Frederick Pollock pointing out what Pollock mistakenly believes is an error on page 212. The copy came to Harvard in April 1965 as part of a bequest by Holmses’s niece-by-marriage, Mary Stacy Holmes.

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