The Great Dissenter – Peter S. Canellos | A Review (of sorts)

Published: June 8, 2021 | Add on: Goodreads or TheStoryGraph

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.

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.

| Goodreads |


I picked up The Great Dissenter for three reasons. The first and second were simply the fact that it is both written by and about a man; after hearing repeatedly that I needed to expand my reading to include more books by and about men, I decided to oblige by reading The Great Dissenter. The third reason was the fact that I am fascinated by the Supreme Court and its work.

I am ashamed to admit that reading The Great Dissenter took me about three months. There is no logical explanation for this fact, as it is not a dull or dry book. I suppose it is simply due to the reality that it is about two men and that I struggled connect with either of their stories in a personal way.

The Great Dissenter primarilyfollows the life of John Marshall Harlan, a Kentucky-born white man, whose father prophetically named after the great and influential Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. The book’s secondary focus is on the life of Robert Harlan, a bi-racial man, whom James Harlan raised as a son. Robert was the son of an enslaved woman and was enslaved himself for many years; naturally there was an assumption that James Harlan was Robert’s father, but this was never proven, or for that matter disproven. 

John Harlan was born and raised in Kentucky, a state that was ripped apart by the Civil War in the unique way that the border states were. James Harlan was a close ally and friend to the orator and U.S. senator, Henry Clay. John deeply admired Clay and was impacted by him and his political viewpoints. Like Clay, John as a young man sought comprises and had no interest in the abolition of slavery. 

Witnessing the violence against black people following the war would result in John slowly shifting his position on slavery, although it would be years before he wholeheartedly advocated for the humanity and rights of black people. John went on to serve as Kentucky’s attorney general before eventually being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Rutherford B. Hayes. 

Throughout John’s many years on the Supreme Court he became known for his passionate and biting dissents. The most famous and influential of his dissents was for the case Plessy v. Ferguson.  John laid out why the majority decision was wrong, saying powerfully “our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” This dissent quickly became a beacon of hope to black Americans, and eventually was heavily relied upon by the Civil Rights movement. 

John’s life and work serves as a powerful reminder that not only can people change and learn, but that one voice speaking the truth can make a difference and eventually work to bring down a wall built of lies. 


What was the last non-fiction book you read? Are there any on your tbr? Have you watched any Christmas movies, recently?

3 thoughts on “The Great Dissenter – Peter S. Canellos | A Review (of sorts)”

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