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William Wiecek

Wiecek explores moral issues in first Harlan Lecture Series presentation

John Marshall Harlan, an 1853 graduate of Transylvania’s distinguished nineteenth-century law department, was raised in a slave-holding Kentucky family and held racist views for much of his early life that were typical of the era. Yet he went on to become one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most respected early champions of civil rights during the later decades of that century.

Before his moral conversion that occurred around 1867-68, Harlan had opposed abolition and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet in 1863 he had raised a regiment to fight for the North and was considered instrumental in keeping Kentucky in the Union.

How does such a walking contradiction of a man forge a reputation on the Supreme Court as a stalwart defender of the rights and freedoms of all Americans regardless of skin color? 

Exploring those ideas formed the heart of historian William Wiecek’s presentation, “John Marshall Harlan, Race, and the United States Supreme Court,” delivered on September 26 in Carrick Theater as the first speech in the John Marshall Harlan Lecture Series.

Wiecek is professor emeritus at Syracuse University College of Law, where he held the Congdon chair in Public Law and Legislation from 1984-2010. His book The Birth of the Modern Constitution: The United States Supreme Court, 1941-1953 (volume 12 of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States) won the John Phillip Reid Prize from the American Society for Legal History for the best book in legal history published in 2006. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin.

After tracing Harlan’s early life and education, including his many unsuccessful attempts to win political office, Wiecek focused on Harlan’s change of heart that led to his famous Supreme Court dissents.

“When Harlan changed his views on race, critics charged him with being an opportunist seeking only to win an election,” Wiecek said. “Harlan’s answer was, ‘I would rather be right than consistent.’ I believe he did undergo a genuine conversion in his thinking and that he deserves his reputation as a prophet on racial issues.”

Wiecek traced the 13 major cases involving race that came before the Supreme Court from 1873-1914 and noted that Harlan dissented in nine of those cases. Perhaps his most famous dissent came in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld Southern segregation statues. Harlan wrote that “Our Constitution is color-blind...in respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

“Justice Harlan stood out from the dominant trend of his time in race issues,” Wiecek said. “His picture of the Constitution as color-blind is a noble vision. In his dissents, he showed a lonely moral grandeur.”

In speaking of Harlan’s Transylvania education, Wiecek noted the prominence of the university’s law department.

“From 1799-1858 Transylvania shone brightly as a center of American legal education,” Wiecek said. “Harvard and Transylvania had the field of university-affiliated legal education to themselves in antebellum America.”

The John Marshall Harlan Lecture Series is made possible by a generous gift from McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie, & Kirkland, PLLC.

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