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Portrait of John Marshall Harlan
Portrait of John Marshall Harlan.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
John Marshall Harlan

b. June 1, 1833, Boyle County, KY
d. October 14, 1911, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

The son of a prominent slaveholding family in Kentucky, John Marshall Harlan graduated from Centre College in Danville in 1850 and spent two years studying law at Transylvania University. He was admitted to the bar in 1853 and joined his father's law practice. A committed Unionist, he became a colonel of a Union regiment when the Civil War broke out. Although Harlan defended slavery initially, his views underwent a radical change during Reconstruction. He joined the Kentucky Republican Party in 1868 and wholeheartedly embraced his party's goals of civil equality. He ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Republican in 1871 and publicly renounced his earlier views. Harlan ran for governor again in 1875, reaffirming his support for civil rights, and lost once more. In the following year, at the Republican National Convention, he managed to swing the Kentucky delegation to Rutherford Hayes. When Hayes became president in 1877, he repaid Harlan by appointing him to the Supreme Court.

Throughout his judicial career, Justice Harlan remained dedicated to winning civil rights for blacks, although he stopped well short of advocating social equality among the races. He also fought for regulation of the giant industries that emerged in the late decades of the century. In both matters Harlan acted primarily out of personal belief and did not attempt to establish a coherent set of judicial principles. He had an abiding faith in the power of the federal government to guarantee justice and widespread economic opportunity. In these attitudes he was distinctly out of step with most of his colleagues on the bench and with most of his contemporaries. As a result, he is distinguished by a set of passionate, sometimes eloquent, dissenting opinions. He was generally dismissed by legal scholars as irrelevant until the early and middle 20th century, when his views began to appear prophetic.

Perhaps his most famous dissenting opinion was in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the constitutionality of segregation laws. Harlan was the sole justice on the Court to disagree. He wrote in his opinion, "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." He expressed the fear that the majority decision would relegate African Americans to a permanent "condition of legal inferiority." Only in 1954, with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, did the Court finally repudiate the "separate but equal" principle established in Plessy.

Harlan had strong personal convictions and was a religious fundamentalist. He believed that the judiciary should serve as the defender of private property and the rights of individuals, and he was rarely swayed by the arguments of his fellow justices even when their legal views had more substance than his own. His tenure of 33 years on the Court was one of the longest in history, and he wrote a total of 1,161 opinions, of which 316 were dissents.

Benjamin Curtis Stephen Field Joseph Bradley John Marshall Harlan view all biographies Roger Taney John Marshall