• The Great Dissenter

  • The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America's Judicial Hero
  • By: Peter S. Canellos
  • Narrated by: Arthur Morey
  • Length: 19 hrs and 23 mins
  • 4.8 out of 5 stars (170 ratings)

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The Great Dissenter

By: Peter S. Canellos
Narrated by: Arthur Morey
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Publisher's Summary

The “superb” (The Guardian) biography of an American who stood against all the forces of Gilded Age America to fight for civil rights and economic freedom: Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

They say that history is written by the victors. But not in the case of the most famous dissenter on the Supreme Court. Almost a century after his death, John Marshall Harlan’s words helped end segregation and gave us our civil rights and our modern economic freedom.

But his legacy would not have been possible without the courage of Robert Harlan, a slave who John’s father raised like a son in the same household. After the Civil War, Robert emerges as a political leader. With Black people holding power in the Republican Party, it is Robert who helps John land his appointment to the Supreme Court.

At first, John is awed by his fellow justices, but the country is changing. Northern whites are prepared to take away black rights to appease the South. Giant trusts are monopolizing entire industries. Against this onslaught, the Supreme Court seemed all too willing to strip away civil rights and invalidate labor protections. So as case after case comes before the court, challenging his core values, John makes a fateful decision: He breaks with his colleagues in fundamental ways, becoming the nation’s prime defender of the rights of Black people, immigrant laborers, and people in distant lands occupied by the US.

Harlan’s dissents, particularly in Plessy v. Ferguson, were widely read and a source of hope for decades. Thurgood Marshall called Harlan’s Plessy dissent his “Bible” - and his legal roadmap to overturning segregation. In the end, Harlan’s words built the foundations for the legal revolutions of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras.

Spanning from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, The Great Dissenter is a “magnificent” (Douglas Brinkley) and “thoroughly researched” (The New York Times) rendering of the American legal system’s most significant failures and most inspiring successes.

©2021 Peter Canellos. All rights reserved. (P)2021 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

What listeners say about The Great Dissenter

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  • Overall
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    4 out of 5 stars

A good and necessary book, BUT WHY THE BEEPS??!

This book needed to be written. It's an important story about an important man (well, two men really, if you include John's brother, Robert) and it's a story that every American should learn about. It's a wonderful tale.

But seriously, WHY ALL THE BEEPS????

This seems to be a relatively new concept with some history books, where they'll beep out certain words that certain historical figures said, as if my delicate little precious ears could not afford to hear such things. I assure you, my ears have heard worse.

It's a history book. People from back in history said some things that would be offensive now. GET OVER IT. Stop beeping out words that are used in context and are historically accurate. STOP IT!

****As an aside, the beeping was done so poorly and so seemingly at random, that with 80% of the beeps I couldn't even figure out what the original word was to begin with. This is inexcusable and should make the author furious.

9 people found this helpful

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a wonderful book - everyone should read

This is a great book of biography, history, and our legal heritage. Canellos does a wonderful job combining the story of Harlan's roots (including large chunks about his older half-brother Robert, who was a prominent black leader in the late 19th century), how Harlan's views shifted from his experiences in the Civil War & Reconstruction, and how his views were reflected in key Supreme Court decisions from the late-19th century to the early-20th. His discussion of these cases, the majority & dissenting opinions, and the consequences of those opinions are very revealing. While I was aware of many of Harlan's dissents -- I wasn't familiar with all of them. It is a shame that Republicans ranting about critical race theory do not know this history, or are dismissive of it. I recommend this book to them too. At the end of the book the author includes 3 short chapters that do a good job to show how Harlan's views became reflected in much later Supreme Court decisions of the 1940s-to-1970s, while at the same time repudiating the prejudiced views of his Supreme Court colleagues.

9 people found this helpful

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Remarkable ,and you can't but wonder at the work a

Remarkable and you can't but wonder a the tremendous research required by this great author to tender this great story which grips us to understand slice of the age he lived in.

3 people found this helpful

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An eye opening experience

Justice Harlan was unknown to me before listening to this book.
He was an individualist, certainly the great dissenter and as proven by much later decisions of the highest court in our land shown to be not only right on his decisions but many many years ahead of his time.
I think you will learn much and enjoy the journey by listening to this book.

1 person found this helpful

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best book I've heard on audible

the right book at the right time. read by a narrator who knows how to pronounce everyone's name.

1 person found this helpful

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About more than just Justice Harlin

Exceptionally well written. Context is so important when trying to understand someone and Mr. Canellos does an amazing job of weaving both personal and national context.

This book is arguably one of the best crash courses into the American Reconstruction period.

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Very enjoyable and enlightening

Great story of an American hero unknown to many. This story would make a good movie.

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brings critical legal history to life

loved it!!! It gives historical context to some of the worst supreme court decisions, and shows how one man's willingness to stand up for equality gave hope and eventually gave meaning to the 14th amendment. Reader was not great

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Pleasantly surprised.

I truly enjoyed this book. Senate minority leader recommended it on Book TV. I highly recommend this book.

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Exceptional!

This is a thorough treatment of one of America's judicial heroes, who laid the foundation for much of the Supreme Court's 20th-century jurisprudence.

1 person found this helpful