About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual author lecture with Peter Canellos, author of The Great Dissenter, a new book about Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

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On Tuesday, June 22, at noon, author Les Standiford will tell us about his new book, Battle for the Big Top. Standiford reveals the stories behind the three men—James Bailey, P. T. Barnum, and John Ringling—who created the American circus.

And on Thursday, June 24, at noon, Patrick K. O’Donnell will discuss The Indispensables, his new book about the diverse soldier-mariners from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who rowed Washington’s troops across the Delaware and formed the origins of the U.S. Navy.

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When Supreme Court decisions are announced, attention is focused mainly on the majority opinion. A dissenting opinion, though, may end up having as great an influence on future law.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes stated: “A dissent in a Court of last resort is an appeal . . . to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.”

As an associate justice of the Supreme Court in the decades after the Civil War, John Marshall Harlan—known as “the Great Dissenter”—was the sole dissenting voice in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the principle of “separate but equal.” Time after time Harlan made an appeal to the future in his dissents and forcefully pointed out the misguided decisions of the majority.

Though he was in the minority when the Court heard the cases that weighed civil rights and labor protections, his dissents laid the groundwork for later protections during the New Deal and Civil Rights eras.

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Peter Canellos is editor at large at Politico, where he oversees investigative journalism and major projects. He has also been Politico’s executive editor and the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe.

He edited Last Lion, the New York Times bestselling biography of Ted Kennedy, and has overseen two Pulitzer Prize–winning projects and five Pulitzer finalists, among many other awards. As a writer, he was the recipient of the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for excellence in editorial writing.

For the past 12 years, Peter has worked with the International Women’s Media Foundation overseeing the Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship, given to a woman journalist to study human rights at MIT and intern at the Globe and New York Times.

Now let’s hear from Peter Canellos. Thank you for joining us.