Book Review: Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet

Review By: 
Courtney Naliboff
Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet
Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet

Constitutional scholar Jeffrey Rosen’s new biography Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet (Yale University Press, Jewish Lives Series) coincides with the 100th anniversary of the confirmation of America’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice. The author revisits many of the ethical issues Brandeis championed with such zeal that Franklin D. Roosevelt nicknamed him “Old Isaiah,” after the biblical prophet.    

Louis Brandeis was born in 1856 in Louisville, KY, the third child of Czech and Polish-Jewish immigrants who immigrated to America for economic opportunity and to escape the anti-Semitic policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After landing in New York, the family headed west to rural Kentucky, where they established a farm, flour mill, and wheat shipping business. His parents cultivated the arts in dinner table discussion, and the family took advantage of the rural environment, where they could camp and canoe.

The family lost its business assets in the 1873 bank collapse, an event that helped shape Brandeis’s negative view of big banks. When he and his family returned to Europe, Brandeis attended the Annen-Realschule in Dresden, where, he later told his clerk, he learned to think and develop new ideas based upon his mastery of facts.

When he returned to the U.S. three years later, Louis was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School by his uncle Lewis N. Dembitz, a lawyer and Talmudic scholar who was one of three Jewish delegates to the 1860 Republican National Convention. Brandeis was the youngest graduate in his class, and he earned the highest marks.

As a young lawyer, Brandeis was sought out by his law partner’s otherwise anti-Semitic wife to establish a legal standard for privacy, which she felt was being violated by society journalists and photographers who hounded her about her friendship with First Lady Frances Cleveland. This led him to seek an additional legal right for public figures, which he called “the right to be let alone.”

Brandeis also valued “intellectual privacy,” protecting individuals engaged in researching or debating controversial issues or ideas, such as communism, from “surveillance or interference.” His evolving position on the privacy issue would inform some of Brandeis’ defining issues: freedom of speech and of the press, and the threat of corruption big banks and mega businesses posed when allowed too much privacy or secrecy. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Brandeis wrote in his 1914 book Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It.

Brandeis’s upbringing in a forward-thinking secular humanist Jewish home, with its emphasis on “love, virtue and truth,” primed him for his civil libertarian opinions as a lawyer and, later, as a Supreme Court Justice. As much as he opposed the influence of big government and overly large businesses, he championed individual liberties and the importance of every citizen having the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.

Brandeis, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson, faced one of the longest and most hotly contested confirmation hearings in American history, Rosen writes. Prominent Boston “Brahmins” with shared business, financial, and social interests mobilized against him, often with anti-Semitic overtones. The New York Sun characterized his nomination as a bid for the Northeastern Jewish vote. A Life magazine editorial supported confirmation but cautioned that “Nine Brandeis’ in the Court would justify nervousness” because his thinking was that of “another race.” Despite all attempts to portray Brandeis as unfit, he was confirmed with a 56-28 vote in the Senate.

Perhaps Brandeis’ greatest influence was his hero and ideological forebear, President Thomas Jefferson. Both shared civil libertarianism values, particularly transparency and decentralization of government and big business, and both wanted to perpetuate America’s agrarian tradition.

It was these values that attracted Brandeis to Zionism. After several meetings with Jacob de Haas, editor of the Jewish Advocate, and the revelation that his beloved uncle Lewis N. Dembitz was a Zionist, Brandeis became a vocal supporter of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Rosen writes that, for Brandeis, a Jewish state represented the romantic ideals of farming and self-determination as the “path to freedom” for Jews hampered by anti-Semitism. He envisioned the Jewish state as a civil libertarian utopia in which people of all religions and races could peacefully coexist, and where land development and business would benefit all in the sense that a “rising tide would lift all boats.”

Rosen peppers his approachable look at how Brandeis addressed and impacted some of America’s most pressing issues with commentaries by current Supreme Court Justices and provides a “Brandeis-ian” analysis of the Internet and social media, warning they can be “as destructive of individuality as huge corporate culture.”

Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine.