1944 May 21

“Liberty Lies in the Hearts of Men and Women . . .” — Judge Learned Hand


Judge Learned Hand, widely regarded as the most important judge who was not appointed to the Supreme Court, spoke to 500,000 people in New York City’s Central Park on “I Am an American” Day. The title of his speech was “The Spirit of Liberty,” and it immediately became famous for his declaration that “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” 

Judge Hand became famous during World War I for his ruling, on July 24, 1917, that the Post Office ban on the radical anti-war publication The Masses was unconstitutional. Although his decision was overturned on appeal, it remains one of the few notable cases during the war in which a court ruled against the suppression of freedom of speech and press.

By the time of his speech on this day, however, Hand had become somewhat conservative, and his speech had a conservative undercurrent, particularly his point that constitutions and laws have little influence on public attitudes about civil liberties. He seriously underestimated the extent to which court decisions inform and educate, and help to shape public opinion on complex issues people had not thought about.

Hand became famous again with his Second Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Dennis v. United States, which was embraced by the Supreme Court on June 4, 1951, as it upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act and the conviction of the top leadership of the Communist Party.

Read the famous speech and others: Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty (1960)

Learn more about Judge Hand: Gerald Gunther, Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge (1994)

Find a reading of the speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-R58noTpVlw

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