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William J. Brennan, Jr.

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“The quest for the freedom, the dignity and the rights of man will never end.”

William Joseph Brennan, Jr., 1906–1997.  Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, 1956–1990.  Typed Letter Signed, Wm J. Brennan Jr., on stationery of the Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C., November 19, 1976.  With original mailing envelope.

This is a wonderful letter by Brennan, who quotes one of his own speeches in order to offer a quote from William Butler Yeats in reply to a request that he send a favorite quotation.  While quoting Yeats, Brennan himself states that the “quest for the freedom, the dignity and the rights of man will never end.”  He writes, in full: 

In reply to your letter requesting a favorite quote, I believe one of my favorites is from William Butler Yeats’ “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan” in the Hour Glass and Other Plays, page 80 (Macmillan Co., 1912) which follows some of my own language in a speech I gave several years ago:

“The quest for the freedom, the dignity and the rights of man will never end.  The quest, though always old, is never old, like the poor old woman in Yeats’ Play.  ‘Did you see an old woman going down the path?’ Asked Bridget.  ‘I did not,’ responded Patrick, who had come into the house just after the old woman left it, ‘But I saw a young girl and she had the walk of a queen.’”

Brennan, a Democrat, was the most liberal, and most influential, justice of the modern Supreme Court.  The Republican who appointed him, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, publicly complained later that the appointment was a mistake.  But in a tribute to Brennan following his death, Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe called Brennan “the principal architect of the nation’s system for protecting individual rights.”  Brennan, he said, “played the pivotal role in . . . building an enduring edifice of common sense and uncommon wisdom that transformed the landscape of America.”

The American ideal of democracy—one person, one vote—flows from Brennan’s opinion in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), which allowed a federal constitutional challenge to a Tennessee apportionment statute denying equal protection of the laws.  Brennan articulated the modern conception of free speech, weighing the rights of the press against the rights of public persons, in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), which held that, under the First Amendment, public officials may not recover for defamation unless the speaker either knew that his statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for whether they were false.  Brennan was typically eloquent in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), which held that the state could not punish a person for burning the American flag in protest.

Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in New Jersey.  He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1931.  He practiced law in New Jersey before being appointed a state trial judge.  He became an appellate judge in 1951, and the next year he was appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Although Brennan was a Democrat, President Eisenhower appointed him an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1956.

During nearly 34 years on the Court, Brennan served with 22 other justices, one-fifth of those who had ever served.  He wrote an astounding 1,573 opinions:  533 majority opinions, 694 dissents, and 346 concurrences.

Brennan has penned and signed this note boldly in black ballpoint.  It is in very fine condition—and only two horizontal mailing folds and a small pencil notation on the back keep it from being extra fine.  The accompanying envelope has been torn open and is in fine to very fine condition.

Unframed.  Please ask us about custom framing this piece.


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