American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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A Wife's Chronicle

Some Memories of A Long Life
Malvina Shanklin Harlan (1839-1916)
"Some Memories of A Long Life"
Typescript memoir, 1915
[published in the
Journal of Supreme Court History
, 2001]
Manuscript Division (102.2)

In this memoir Malvina Harlan chronicled her fifty-four-year marriage to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911), a Kentucky lawyer and former slaveholder. During his thirty-four years on the court, Harlan was an important dissenting voice in key rulings on civil rights, including the Civil Rights cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In 1883 the high court effectively overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Originally championed by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, the 1875 act guaranteed federal protection to "citizens of every race and color" in their access to accommodations such as railroads, hotels, theaters and "other places of public amusement." While the majority of the court ruled narrowly in 1883 that regulation of civil rights was the prerogative of the states, Harlan argued that Congress was within its powers to pass appropriate legislation to enforce the spirit of equality intended in the passage of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution. Here his wife notes "as all lawyers know, the Court declared the Sumner Act unconstitutional, my husband alone dissenting."

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