The “superb” (The Guardian) biography of an American who stood against all the forces of Gilded Age America to fight for civil rights and economic freedom: Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.
They say that history is written by the victors. But not in the case of the most famous dissenter on the Supreme Court. Almost a century after his death, John Marshall Harlan’s words helped end segregation and gave us our civil rights and our modern economic freedom.
But his legacy would not have been possible without the courage of Robert Harlan, a slave who John’s father raised like a son in the same household. After the Civil War, Robert emerges as a political leader. With Black people holding power in the Republican Party, it is Robert who helps John land his appointment to the Supreme Court.
At first, John is awed by his fellow justices, but the country is changing. Northern whites are prepared to take away black rights to appease the South. Giant trusts are monopolizing entire industries. Against this onslaught, the Supreme Court seemed all too willing to strip away civil rights and invalidate labor protections. So as case after case comes before the court, challenging his core values, John makes a fateful decision: He breaks with his colleagues in fundamental ways, becoming the nation’s prime defender of the rights of Black people, immigrant laborers, and people in distant lands occupied by the US.
Harlan’s dissents, particularly in Plessy v. Ferguson, were widely read and a source of hope for decades. Thurgood Marshall called Harlan’s Plessy dissent his “Bible”—and his legal roadmap to overturning segregation. In the end, Harlan’s words built the foundations for the legal revolutions of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras.
Spanning from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, The Great Dissenter is a “magnificent” (Douglas Brinkley) and “thoroughly researched” (The New York Times) rendering of the American legal system’s most significant failures and most inspiring successes.
Biographer Canellos (Last Lion) intertwines in this original and eye-opening biography the lives of Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan and his rumored half-brother, Robert Harlan, who was born a slave. Appointed to the court by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 "as a kind of human olive branch to the South," Kentucky-born Harlan was the lone dissenting voice in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, decisions that established the legal precedent for enforcing racial discrimination and segregation. Canellos contends that Harlan's egalitarian impulses were informed by growing up alongside Robert, the rumored son of Harlan's father and an enslaved woman, who made a fortune in the California Gold Rush and became a political power broker in Cincinnati. The second half of the book examines the cases that defined Harlan's judicial legacy and their lasting impact on issues ranging from income tax to civil rights; Canellos notes that Harlan's dissent in Plessy became a touchstone in Thurgood Marshall's fight to reverse decades of racial discrimination. Written in lively prose and enriched with colorful character sketches and a firm command of the legal issues involved, this is a masterful introduction to two fascinating figures in American history.