John Marshall Harlan Biography

Civil Rights Activist, Supreme Court Justice, Lawyer(1833–1911)
John Marshall Harlan served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1877 until his death in 1911, and is remembered as one of the most forceful dissenters in the history of that tribunal.

Synopsis

Born on June 1, 1833, in Boyle County, Kentucky, John Marshall Harlan served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He made two unsuccessful bids for the Kentucky governorship in the 1870s, and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1877. Regarded as one of the most forceful dissenters in the history of the Court, Harlan was the only justice to oppose the 1883 decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He also dissented from the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld laws allowing racial segregation on trains and in other public facilities under the "separate but equal" legal doctrine. He died in 1911.

Early Life

Born on June 1, 1833, in Boyle County, Kentucky, John Marshall Harlan served on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than 30 years. He was the son of James Harlan, a lawyer and politician who served in the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839. He was named after Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

After graduating from Centre College in 1850, Harlan studied law at Transylvania University. He also worked at his father's law practice. In 1853, Harlan was admitted to the Kentucky bar. While he came from a wealthy slave-owning family, Harlan found himself supporting the Union cause during the Civil War. He did not want Kentucky to leave the union, and served in the Union Army as a colonel during the war.

After the death of his father in 1863, Harlan resigned from his military post and won election as attorney general of Kentucky, having run as the Union Party's nominee. Not long after, in 1868, he became a member of the Republican Party. Seeking higher office, Harlan made two unsuccessful runs for the governorship of Kentucky, in 1871 and 1875, as the Republican nominee. In 1876, he led the Kentucky delegation to the Republican National Convention. There, he helped Rutherford B. Hayes secure their party's nomination.

Supreme Court Justice

President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Harlan to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877. Over his tenure on the court, Harlan became known for dissenting on leading cases of the day. He often sided against his peers on the bench to support civil rights, and was the only justice to oppose the 1883 decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In 1896, Harlan once again stood alone to oppose the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of state laws which allowed racial segregation on trains and in other public facilities under the "separate but equal" legal doctrine. (The decision was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.) In his dissent to Plessy v. Ferguson, Harlan wrote: “. . .in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. 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. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. . .”

Harlan also campaigned for the rights of individuals and of workers. He dissented in 1903's Hawaii v. Mankichi case, believing that Hawaiians should be granted the same rights given citizens on the mainland under the Constitution. And in 1905, he opposed the court's decision to strike down a New York law that set a maximum number of hours for bakers' weekly workload in Lochner v. New York. The court had been divided 5 to 4 in this case, with three other justices joining Harlan in his dissent. 

Harlan served on the court until his death, on October 14, 1911, in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife, Malvina. The couple had been married since 1856 and had six children together. Malvina wrote about their life together in Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911 following Harlan's death. Harlan's grandson, also named John Marshall Harlan, joined the court more than 40 years after his death.

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