Being Guided by Conscience

John Marshall Harlan was named for the famous nation’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall.  His family were prominent slave holders in Kentucky and Harlan had a mixed-race half-brother, Robert, who was raised in the family.  John and Robert were close.

John’s father was a lawyer and oversaw his preparation as an attorney.  While John had some formal legal education, most of his preparation as a lawyer came from reading of the law under his father’s guidance.

John became active in politics at an early age, serving as Kentucky’s Adjutant General for eight years.  Kentucky, at the time, was deeply divided on the slavery issue and John was critical of both abolitionists and pro-slavery supporters.  When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he fought to keep Kentucky in the Union.  John subsequently fought for the North in the Civil War.

John was opposed to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing some slaves, but not all, and the 13th Amendment which made the end of slavery more definitive in the present and future states of the United States.  He remained active in Republican politics but was unsuccessful as a candidate for office.

When a Supreme Court vacancy became available, President Rutherford Hayes appointed John to the court.  He was thought to be an attractive choice for the defeated South.  The Supreme Court, at the time, was prone to allow states to curtail the rights of African Americans.  Justice Harlan dissented when the court decided that the 14th Amendment did not bar private interests from practicing racial discrimination.  He was the lone dissenter.

When the Supreme Court decided that separate but equal accommodations were not a violation of the Constitution, Justice Harlan was again the lone dissenter.  Over time, Justice Harlan became known as the great dissenter for his vigorous objections against the majority opinions of the Court.

While his family history would have predicted that Justice Harlan would have gone along with the court on matters involving racial issues, he defied his heritage and voted his conscience.  Over time, his dissents have come to be accepted by the mainstream of American citizens, but he was reviled at the time for betraying his kind.

There comes a time in most of our lives when we have to decide between something that is comfortable, but wrong and something that is uncomfortable, but our conscience tells us is right.  Defying our conscience is something that we will regret as we reflect on our life’s journey.  We may try to find a middle ground, but there are rarely compromises when our conscience guides us.

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“I was wont to console myself with what seemed to many a transcendental idea, that one man with God is a majority.” – Frederick Douglas

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