The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero

S. & S. Jun. 2021. 624p. ISBN 9781501188206. $30. BIOG
In this biography, veteran journalist Canellos (Last Lion) examines post–Civil War Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911), with the added perspective of modern politics and values. Harlan’s several dissenting opinions on civil rights cases were, Canellos argues, extremely prescient and a guide for judicial recognition of civil rights and due process in the 20th century. This book effectively covers Harlan’s primary influences: his religious background, Civil War military service for the Union, and upbringing in a slaveholding Kentucky Whig political family. (Harlan didn’t free the enslaved people in his household until the 13th Amendment was ratified.) Canellos devotes considerable attention to Harlan’s close relationship with half-brother Robert Harlan (1816–97), who was born into slavery at the Harlan family plantation. In the author’s telling, Robert, an activist and politician, influenced Justice Harlan to eventually advocate against racial discrimination and to be the lone dissenting justice on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation.
VERDICT Canellos has written a skillful biography that illuminates the lives of both John Harlan and Robert Harlan. It will spark the interest of readers looking for more insight on the Reconstruction era. As in Canellos’s previous books, the life and times of his subjects come alive here.
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