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John Marshall Harlan, Class of 1850

John Marshall Harlan, U.S. Supreme Court justice, was born on June 1, 1833, the fifth son of nine children of James Harlan , Kentucky lawyer- politician, and Elizabeth Shannon (Davenport) Harlan. His birthplace was the Old Stone House at Harlan Station, five miles west of Danville, Kentucky, in what is now Boyle County. James Harlan, ambitious for his young son to become a lawyer, named him after Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. After living in Harrodsburg for several years while James Harlan served in the U.S. Congress, the family moved to Frankfort when John Marshall Harlan was seven years of age. He was educated at the private school of B.B. Sayre and entered Centre College in Danville in 1848. Harlan was an honor graduate in 1850. After graduating from Transylvania University Law School in Lexington in 1852, Harlan returned to his Frankfort home to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1853.

In 1858 Harlan was elected county judge of Franklin County, his only judicial experience prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court. The next year a convention of Old Whig, Know-Nothing, and American party politicians nominated Harlan to run for the U.S. Congress from Henry Clay 's Ashland District against the Democrat Williard E. Simms. In a controversial campaign and election, Harlan lost by fewer than 70 votes. In the even more controversial national presidential election of 1860, Harlan supported and campaigned for the unsuccessful Bell-Everett ticket of the moderate Constitutional Union party . Harlan moved to Louisville in February 1861, established a law firm with William F. Bullock, and resigned as county judge.

Harlan all but abandoned his law practice from May to August 1861 to make speeches with President Abraham Lincoln 's attorney general, James Speed , encouraging Kentuckians to stand firm for the Union. That fall, he raised a Union regiment, the 10th Kentucky Infantry, which was part of Gen. George H. Thomas's division. Colonel Harlan served well at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862 and in the advance on Corinth, Mississippi, in 1862, but it was Harlan's victory over Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan at Rolling Fork River Bridge on December 29, 1862, that made his reputation during the war. Before Harlan's promotion to brigadier general could be acted upon, he resigned from the army upon the sudden death of his father. Soon after his return to Kentucky, he was elected attorney general of Kentucky on the Union ticket, replacing his father. He held that office in Frankfort until November 1867, when he resumed his law practice in Louisville.

A nationalist and states' rights, slave-holding Whig follower of Henry Clay before the war, Harlan underwent a political transformation during and after the war. Harlan had opposed the elections of Lincoln and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but he accepted the amendments as central to the restoration of the Union when he became a Radical Republican. Harlan campaigned for the first time as a Republican in 1868, when he supported Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for president. Although Harlan was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1871 and 1875, his efforts were essential in establishing the Republican party in Kentucky. In 1876 Harlan led the delegation from Kentucky to the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, which was committed to the nomination of his law partner, Benjamin H. Bristow, for president. When Harlan became convinced that neither Bristow, who had been President Grant's secretary of the Treasury, nor Sen. James G. Blaine could win, he delivered the delegation for Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. President Hayes named Harlan to the Supreme Court, and Harlan, at age forty- four, took the oath of office as an associate justice on December 10, 1877.

Justice Harlan was a courteous, thoughtful, eloquent, and independent- minded southern gentleman. During his almost thirty-four years of service on the Court (1877-1911), he authored 745 majority, 100 concurring, and 316 dissenting opinions, for a record 1,161 opinions. He was known as the Great Dissenter, especially in the field of civil rights. His lone dissent in the civil rights cases in 1883 held that the majority had too narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment; his eloquent lone dissent in Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) was against "separate but equal" status for blacks. In Berea College V. Kentucky (1908), Harlan wrote the solitary dissent when the majority, including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, prohibited schools from admitting both black and white students. His lone dissents in civil rights cases were influential precedents of Brown V. Board Of Education Of Topeka (1954), in which a unanimous Court struck down the separate but equal doctrine. Justice Harlan also filed a strong dissent in Pollock V. Farmers' Loan And Trust Co. (1895), when the Court majority held that Congress could not levy an income tax. He believed in the strong enforcement of the Sherman Anti-trust Act (1890) and dissented in United States V. E.c. Knight Co. (1895), but wrote the majority opinion in Northern Securities Co. V. United States (1903).

In his support of civil rights and his belief that the Bill Of Rights, through its incorporation in the Fourteenth Amendment, protected citizens from the arbitrary power of the states, Justice Harlan was the leading liberal on a conservative Court, and was years ahead of his time. In 1972 sixty-five law school deans and professors of law, history, and political science rated Marshall one of the twelve greatest justices of the Supreme Court.

Harlan married Malvina French Shanklin in Evansville, Indiana, on December 23, 1856; they had six children. Their son John Maynard was the father of the John Marshall Harlan who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower in 1955. Justice Harlan died at his home in Washington, D.C., on October 14, 1911, and was buried at Rock Creek Cemetery.

Source: Lee, Charles R., Jr. "John Marshall Harlan." The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, 1992