Henry Billings Brown was born on March 2, 1836, in South Lee, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale College in 1856, where he had been a classmate of David Brewer, with whom he would later serve on the Supreme Court. After graduation, Brown spent a year traveling in Europe, which he later considered his most valuable educational experience. Upon his return to the US in 1857, he began studying law in Ellington, Connecticut, continuing his studied as Yale, then Harvard Law School. In 1859, before completing his legal studies at Harvard, he moved to Detroit, Michigan. There, he completed his studied and was admitted to the bar. During his first year as a lawyer, he was appointed deputy US Marshall for Detroit. Three years later, he became an assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. He hired a substitute to serve for him in the military during the Civil War, a common practice among men of means and influence. Although he was not in favor of emancipation, the Republican attorney supported the Union and the President. In 1864, he married Caroline Pitts, who inherited a fortune in 1868 and enabled Brown to become financially independent. Appointed as interim Circuit Judge for Wayne County in 1868, he was unable to win the election for a full term in November of the same year.
President Ulysses Grant appointed Brown to the US District Court for Eastern Michigan in 1875. After 14 years of service, Brown was nominated by President Benjamin Harrison to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed Brown on December 29, 1890. On the Court, he was a centrist, avoiding dissent and seeking compromise solutions. Brown retired from the Court on May 28, 1906. After retiring, he traveled abroad, then settled in Bronxville, New York, where he died on September 4, 1913.