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

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

by Peter S. Canellos
The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America's Judicial Hero

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

by Peter S. Canellos


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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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501188213
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/28/2022
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 154,325
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Peter S. Canellos is an award-winning writer and former Editorial Page Editor of The Boston Globe and Executive Editor of Politico. He is the editor of the New York Times bestseller, Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Moral Hero 1

Prologue: "One Man with God Is a Majority" 11

Book I

Chapter 1 A Father's Prophecy 35

Chapter 2 Journey into the Heart of Slavery 53

Chapter 3 Faith and the Founding Fathers 70

Chapter 4 Dread and Dred Scott 92

Chapter 5 The Soul of Kentucky 117

Chapter 6 John vs. John 145

Chapter 7 "Knowledge Is Power" 167

Chapter 8 John, Robert, and Benjamin 192

Chapter 9 "Do-Do Take Care" 216

Book II

Chapter 10 Destiny 233

Chapter 11 Standing Alone 256

Chapter 12 "The Colonel Has Indeed Surprised Us" 271

Chapter 13 In Trusts We Trust 294

Chapter 14 Requiem for the Gilded Age 308

Chapter 15 The Humblest and Most Powerful 329

Chapter 16 The Walls of Segregation 352

Chapter 17 The Constitution Follows the Flag 371

Chapter 18 Freedom in the Workplace 393

Chapter 19 "I Am a Innocent Man" 411

Chapter 20 "Ever May His Name Be Said in Reverence" 425

Book III

Chapter 21 Self-inflicted Wounds 447

Chapter 22 "A Vicarious Atonement" 458

Chapter 23 "Justice Harlan Concurring" 470

Epilogue "Our Basic Legal Creed" 485

Acknowledgments 497

Notes 503

Bibliography 567

Index 573

Photo Credits 611

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