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Publisher's Summary

The definitive, sweeping biography of an American hero 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, it was John Marshall Harlan’s words that 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. 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 United States.

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 road map 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 an epic rendering of the American legal system’s greatest failures and most inspiring successes.

©2021 Peter Canellos. All rights reserved. (P)2021 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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  • D. Littman
  • 27-06-2021

a wonderful book - everyone should read

This is a great book of biography, history, and our legal heritage. Canellos does a wonderful job combining the story of Harlan's roots (including large chunks about his older half-brother Robert, who was a prominent black leader in the late 19th century), how Harlan's views shifted from his experiences in the Civil War & Reconstruction, and how his views were reflected in key Supreme Court decisions from the late-19th century to the early-20th. His discussion of these cases, the majority & dissenting opinions, and the consequences of those opinions are very revealing. While I was aware of many of Harlan's dissents -- I wasn't familiar with all of them. It is a shame that Republicans ranting about critical race theory do not know this history, or are dismissive of it. I recommend this book to them too. At the end of the book the author includes 3 short chapters that do a good job to show how Harlan's views became reflected in much later Supreme Court decisions of the 1940s-to-1970s, while at the same time repudiating the prejudiced views of his Supreme Court colleagues.

8 people found this helpful

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  • aaron
  • 06-09-2021

A good and necessary book, BUT WHY THE BEEPS??!

This book needed to be written. It's an important story about an important man (well, two men really, if you include John's brother, Robert) and it's a story that every American should learn about. It's a wonderful tale.

But seriously, WHY ALL THE BEEPS????

This seems to be a relatively new concept with some history books, where they'll beep out certain words that certain historical figures said, as if my delicate little precious ears could not afford to hear such things. I assure you, my ears have heard worse.

It's a history book. People from back in history said some things that would be offensive now. GET OVER IT. Stop beeping out words that are used in context and are historically accurate. STOP IT!

****As an aside, the beeping was done so poorly and so seemingly at random, that with 80% of the beeps I couldn't even figure out what the original word was to begin with. This is inexcusable and should make the author furious.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Thomas Shanklin
  • 05-10-2021

Pleasantly surprised.

I truly enjoyed this book. Senate minority leader recommended it on Book TV. I highly recommend this book.

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  • Preston Silvernail
  • 25-09-2021

Remarkable ,and you can't but wonder at the work a

Remarkable and you can't but wonder a the tremendous research required by this great author to tender this great story which grips us to understand slice of the age he lived in.

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  • Butch
  • 17-09-2021

Exceptional!

This is a thorough treatment of one of America's judicial heroes, who laid the foundation for much of the Supreme Court's 20th-century jurisprudence.

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  • John K.
  • 17-09-2021

Magnificent Biography

Every American should read this man’s story. His courage and prescience will stand testament against the revisionists who portray our sad and tumultuous history as purely a chronicle of racism. Justice Harlan turned the tide of American history toward a colorblind society that most strive to achieve. God Bless him!

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 27-08-2021

Heart for humanity and respect for the constitution

I did not know of Supreme Justice John Marshall. I also did not know his impact upon our country’s major legal decisions. It speaks loudly that he is revered by both conservative and liberal Supreme Court Justices. His history and Robert James Harlan’s life are compelling stories of the impact of race after the Civil War. I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand our US history from the Civil War period to today.

In the spirit of reconciliation, Audible Australia acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.