The Mysterious Robert Harlan


I am a little late in writing about this, but I only just discovered it today.

Smithsonian Magazine runs a very interesting blog called Past Imperfect, which describes itself as “history with all the interesting bits left in.” In December 2011, Gilbert King posted an article called “The Great Dissenter and His Half-Brother,” which was about the relationship between John Marshall Harlan and Robert James Harlan. The story of Robert Harlan is a fascinating one and Mr. King does a good job of telling it. Harlan, who was half-white and half-black, was raised as a slave in the Harlan family, although he was treated better than the family’s other slaves. He was tutored by two of John’s brothers and was given the latitude to run his own businesses, where he did so well that he was able to buy his freedom. Afterwards he went out west to California, where he made a fortune either by prospecting or gambling, and then settled down in Cincinnati, where he became one of that city’s prominent citizens.

The exact nature of the relationship of the two Harlans has long been a source of fascination to historians, especially given the Justice’s complicated attitudes towards slavery and race over his life. Most historians have assumed that they were half-brothers, and Mr. King flatly states it as a fact. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be true. Harlan biographer Linda Przybyszewski was so interested in this question that in 2001 she determined to get to the bottom of it. She arranged for a DNA test to be run between Louis R. Harlan, a distant cousin of John, and Robert Jackson Harlan, Robert’s great-great-grandson (and also, interestingly, a lawyer.) The test, as an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer puts it, “show[s] that it is unlikely the men were related.”

But don’t let that stop you from reading the article.  Robert Harlan’s story is still fascinating, and one that illuminates a lot about John Marshall Harlan’s life as well.

(I have one other small quibble about the article. Mr. King gets some of his information from John’s wife, Malvina’s, memoirs, and then states in his bibliography that the memoirs are unpublished. Not true. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped convince Random House to publish the book with an informative afterword by Linda Przybyszewski in 2001, which was right around the time she got the results of the DNA test. It too is a great read.)

Update: At the beginning of her article “Wronged in Her Dearest Rights: Plaintiff Wives and the Transformation of Marital Consortium, 1870-1920,” (31 Law and History Review 61-99, available online but only with a subscription to Cambridge Journals Online) Kimberley A. Reilly relates another incident from Robert Harlan’s life.  Apparently Harlan had his share of problems with the ladies…


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