Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name




Degree Program

History, MA

Committee Chair

Morrill, James R.


Harlan, John Marshall, 1833-1911


The thesis deals with the political career of John Marshall Harlan prior to his appointment in 1877 as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Throughout the majority of those twenty-three active years in Kentucky politics, Harlan was an adamant defender of the slave system, and despite the fact that he had been a strong Unionist during the Civil War, he resisted emancipation of the slaves and opposed every effort to gain civil rights for the blacks once they were freed. When Harlan became a Republican in 1868, he hurriedly reversed himself, and became a consistent advocate of the Reconstruction Amendments and of the Civil Rights Acts. On the Supreme Court, Harlan--an ex-slave owner--was widely hailed as a progressive on a conservative court, often delivering impassioned dissents in civil rights and anti-trust cases. The author concludes that above all other considerations, Harlan was an ambitious politician. Having seen his father's political success in the Whig Party, Harlan became active in the party just as its popularity in the state rapidly declined. Therefore, whether in opposition to immigrants as a member of the "Know-Nothing" Party or in support of full protection for slave owners as a member of the anti-Democratic "Opposition" Party, Harlan's stand on these issues, though not totally void of personal conviction, was primarily designed to restore lost political success. Despite Harlan's penchant for placing politics above principle, one consistent loyalty prohibited him from following most of his friends into the southern Democratic Party that emerged to dominant Kentucky politics after the Civil War: Harlan was unwilling to see the Union cause, for which he had proudly fought the Civil War, belittled by the former Confederates who led the southern Democrats. Thus, after failing to create a third party option to the southern Democratic and "Radical" Republican Parties, Harlan, the consummate politician, swallowed his opposition toward full citizenship for blacks and the other aspects of Congressional Reconstruction and joined the Republican Party. The significance of this decision can be illustrated by juxtaposing Harlan's new Republican views with declarations that he made a short time before; truly, political ambition had led to the transformation of a southerner.