Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/John M. Harlan



JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was born in a country district of Boyle county, Kentucky, June 1, 1833. He entered Centre college, Kentucky, and graduated in 1850. Following the bent of the illustrious jurist for whom he was named, he early manifested a taste for the law, and took a course in the law department of Transylvania university, graduating in 1853. He commenced practice at the capital of his state, where his parents then lived, continuing there until 1858. In 1856 he was married to Malvina F., daughter of John Shankhn, of Evansville, Indiana. In 1858 he was elected county judge. As Whig candidate for congress (in 1859), in the Ashland district, he failed of election by only sixty-seven votes.

In 1860, he was elector on the Bell and Everett ticket, and when the war broke out, in 1861, then a resident of Louisville, he left his office and by dint of zeal and energy soon raised a regiment for the Union army (the 10th Kentucky Infantry regiment), became its colonel and served with gallantry until the death of his father in the spring of 1863, when, although his name was before the senate for confirmation as a brigadier-general, he was constrained to resign, that he might meet the demands of the bereaved family.

In his letter of resignation dated March 2, 1863, addressed to Brigadier-General Garfield, chief of staff, the justice said:

“The recent sudden death of my father has devolved upon me duties of a private nature which I cannot with propriety neglect, and which the exigencies of the public service do not require that I shall neglect. Those duties relate to his unsettled business, which demands my immediate personal attention.

“I deeply regret that I am compelled at this time to return to civil life. It was my fixed purpose to remain in the Federal army until it had effectually suppressed the existing armed rebellion and restored the authority of the National Government over every part of the nation. No ordinary consideration would have induced me

to depart from this purpose. Even the private interests to which
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I have alluded would be regarded as nothing in my estimation if I felt that my continuance in or retirement from the service would to any material extent affect the great struggle through which the country is now passing.

“If, therefore, I am permitted to retire from the army, I beg the commanding general to feel assured that it is from no want of confidence either in the justice or the ultimate triumph of the Union cause. That cause will always have the warmest sympathies of my heart, for there are no conditions upon which I will consent to a dissolution of the Union. Nor are there any conditions consistent with a republican form of government which I am not prepared to make in order to maintain and perpetuate that Union.”

In the same year he was elected attorney-general of Kentucky by the Union party, continuing for the term of four years, and then returning to active practice in Louisville. In 1871 he was Republican nominee for governor, but was defeated. In 1872 the Republican state convention named him for the vice-presidency. In 1875 he was named for governor and was again defeated. In 1876 he was chairman of the Kentucky delegation to the Republican national convention. The following year he was appointed to inquire into, and as far as possible to remove, existing obstacles to regular procedure under the constitution and laws of the state, to the end of a recognition of a single legislature and the proper authority of the Federal Government.

It was in this year (1877), that he declined a foreign mission. He accepted the position of associate justice of the United States Supreme court, to which he was appointed on November 29, 1877. His course in this position has been marked by the same vigor which always characterized him, and by an ability and impartiality highly appreciated by his associates and by members of the legal profession generally. During his incumbency of the associate justiceship he has also been connected with the law department of Columbian university (now George Washington university), giving lectures on constitutional law and public and private international law, and since 1891 serving as professor of the Constitutional Jurisprudence of the United States, and of the Law of Torts — a capacity in which, by reason of his known command of the subjects, together with a commanding presence and an agreeable and impressive manner, he has always been exceedingly popular.