In a new biography of Harlan, The Great Dissenter, Peter S. Canellos—an editor at Politico and the author of a biography of Ted Kennedy—says that Americans don’t yet fully appreciate this personal and political transformation, if they even recognize Harlan’s name at all ... This new book is a worthy addition: Solidly accessible and thoroughly researched, it makes a persuasive case for Harlan’s significance and sometimes reads like a mystery ... Canellos discerns an unbroken thread running through Harlan’s life. The judge harbored a lifelong abhorrence of national divisions — it’s just that his understanding of who was responsible for the most fractious of those divisions would change according to his experiences. His conversion to the civil rights cause was hard-won ... Canellos is protective of his biographical subject, straining to put a charitable gloss on some of Harlan’s more troubling comments from the bench.
Although John Harlan is the book’s titular protagonist, Robert Harlan is its most intriguing character—on his own terms, not merely as a vehicle for understanding John’s conscience on race. The author’s affection for both men emerges in his writing, which at times edges close to excusing John’s less enlightened views (including his participation in unanimous opinions excluding Chinese Americans from equal standing). Still, overall this is a sensitive and smart excavation of two men’s entwined lives .. 'There are silences in American history,' Canellos writes in the book’s introduction. Hidden by one such silence is the truth about what happened to Black Americans in the years after Reconstruction ... With The Great Dissenter, and the story of the Harlan men, he has gone some distance in ending that silence.
Mr. Canellos rescues these cases from law-school casebooks and situates them in American history ... Harlan’s account of our 'color-blind' Constitution will surely (and rightly) attract attention in the years ahead. And his criticism of monopoly power will echo in today’s debates over big-tech companies and social-media platforms. We would all do well to look more deeply into the ideas and ideals that informed his dissents and the qualities of character that enabled him to stand alone in their defense.