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A letter from Harry Truman to Judge Learned Hand

Learned Hand was born on this day in 1872. In a letter dated 15 May 1951, Judge Learned Hand wrote President Harry S. Truman to declare his intention to retire from “regular active service.” President Truman responded to Hand’s news with a letter praising his service to the country. These letters are excerpted from Reason and Imagination: The Selected Letters of Learned Hand, edited by Constance Jordan.

To Judge Learned Hand

May 23, 1951
The White House, Washington, D.C.

Dear Judge Hand:

Your impending retirement fills me with regret, which I know is shared by the American people. It is hard to accept the fact that after forty-two years of most distinguished service to our Nation, your activities are now to be narrowed. It is always difficult for me to express a sentiment of deep regret; what makes my present task so overwhelming is the compulsion I feel to attempt, on behalf of the American people, to give in words some inkling of the place you have held and will always hold in the life and spirit of our country.

Your profession has long since recognized the magnitude of your contribution to the law. There has never been any question about your preeminent place among American jurists – indeed among the nations of the world. In your writings, in your day-to-day work for almost half a century, you have added purpose and hope to man’s quest for justice through the process of law. As judge and philosopher, you have expressed the spirit of America and the highest in civilization which man has achieved. America and the American people are the richer because of the vigor and fullness of your contribution to our way of life.

We are compensated in part by the fact that you are casting off only a part of the burdens which you have borne for us these many years, and by our knowledge that you will continue actively to influence our life and society for years to come. May you enjoy many happy years of retirement, secure in the knowledge that no man, whatever his walk of life, has ever been more deserving of the admiration and the gratitude of his country, and indeed of the entire free world.

Very sincerely yours, Harry S. Truman

Hand immediately responded to the President’s letter:

To President Harry S. Truman
May 24, 1951

Dear Mr. President:

Your letter about my retirement quite overwhelms me. I dare not believe that it is justified by anything which I have done, yet I cannot but be greatly moved that you should think that it is. The best reward that anyone can expect from official work is the approval of those competent to judge who become acquainted with it; your words of warm approval are much more than I could conceivably have hoped to receive. I can only tell you of my deep gratitude, and assure you that your letter will be a possession for all time for me and for those who come after me.

Respectfully yours, LEARNED HAND

The letters above were excerpted from Reason and Imagination: The Selected Letters of Learned Hand, edited by Constance Jordan, a retired professor of comparative literature and also Hand’s granddaughter. Learned Hand served on the United States District Court and is commonly thought to be the most influential justice never to serve on the Supreme Court. He corresponded with people in different walks of life, some who were among his friends and acquaintances, others who were strangers to him.

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Image credit: (1) Harry S Truman. US National Archives. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Judge Learned Hand circa 1910. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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