Letter from Frederick Douglass to John Marshall Harlan


While rooting around in our collection of Harlan papers, I found a number of items that had been misfiled. Presumably they had been put on display many years ago and then just thrown back in a random box. The most interesting item in the set was a November 27, 1883 letter to Harlan from Frederick Douglass in regards to his recent dissent in the Civil Rights Cases. I have always been interested in Douglass so finding the letter was real thrill. A cursory search on the Internet did not reveal any references to the letter, so I decided to go ahead and post it.

While it may be stretching things a bit to call the two men friends, they were certainly acquaintances and admirers of each other. They first met in 1872 while on the campaign trail for Rutherford B. Hayes. At their first meeting they were seated next to each other at a dinner table — a circumstance Harlan always related with pride, even when political opponents tried to use it against him in his political campaigns. They heard each other speak on the campaign trail, and Harlan said later that Douglass “had no equal as a public speaker. He would have made a great Senator.” Their paths crossed a number of times after that, and when Douglass died, Harlan attended his funeral.

The Civil Rights Cases is a name given to five cases that were filed in response to violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Even though the cases were filed separately, the Supreme Court  lumped them together  and in a 8-1 decision held that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional — a decision that helped pave the way for segregation and Jim Crow laws. Like he would be in the later Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Harlan was the Court’s sole dissenter, and his dissent made headlines across the country. While Douglass was, of course, appalled by the court’s decision, he also appreciated Harlan’s stance on the issue and made a number of public pronouncements to that effect. But here in this letter, one can see Douglass’ views  as privately expressed from one individual to another:

Washington D.C. Nov. 27, 1883

Honorable John M. Harlan


Your exalted position on the Bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the freedom from the influence of praise or blame implied in that position has made me hesitate to express to you by letter the grateful feeling with which I have read your dissenting opinion from your Brothers in respect of their decision declaring the Civil Rights Bill unconstitutional and void, though I have not been slow or silent about expressing my feelings to the public about that opinion. What I have said to the public about that paper I now take the liberty (I hope not unwarrantable) to say to you by letter, and that is, I have read it with boundless satisfaction and hold it to be a triumphant vindication and justification of your dissent from the view taken of the Civil Rights Bill by your Brother Justices. It seems to me to be absolutely unanswerable and unassailable by any fair argument at any point for there is not a single weak point in it. You had an important and in some respects a difficult and delicate work to do, and you have done it with amazing ability skill and effect. It should be scattered like the leaves of Autumn over the whole country, and be seen, read and pondered upon by every citizen of the country and if I had means I would cause it to be published in every newspaper and magazine in the land. The Bible tells us that one shall chase a thousand and two put ten thousand to flight. However this may be in respect to physical combat, in the moral & intellectual field this has proved true a thousand times over, and never more true than in the present instance. I am glad sir, that in this day of compromise and concession where it is so much easier to drift with the current, to sacrifice conviction for the sake of peace, that you have been able to adhere to your convictions and thus save your soul. When self respect is lost the soul is lost. I have nothing better to say of your Brothers on the Supreme Bench, though I am amazed and distressed by what they have done. How they could at this day and in view of the past commit themselves and the country to such a surrender of National dignity and duty, I am unable to explain. I have read what they have said, and find no solid ground in it. Superficial and [???], smooth and logical within the narrow circumference beyond which they do not venture, that is all. I took my pen only to assure you of my unalloyed satisfaction with your opinion and my gratitude and admiration. I wish to assure you if you are alone on the Bench, you are not alone in the country. I hope you have seen the powerful speech made in Lincoln Hall by Col. R. G. Ingersoll. It is now in pamphlet form and will be widely circulated. There were speeches made on the same occasion by Rev. Doctor Rankin and Judge Shellabarger which ought to go out to the country. Excuse me for taking up so much of your time. I have sent you this not because you need the utterance – but because it was a need of my own.

I am, dear and honored sir,

Yours truly and gratefully

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass 1

Frederick Douglass 2

Frederick Douglass 3

Update 2/24/2014: I figured out where in the collection the letter is supposed to be placed — right after letters by Ingersoll and Rutherford B. Hayes. On the other side of the letter is an undated page (edit: see below) from a nineteenth century newspaper called The American Reformer. On the page is a column written by Douglass about the decision by the Court. I’m attaching a pdf copy of the article for those who want to read more of what Douglass had to say. And for those who don’t want to download the article but want to see what he had to say about Harlan, here are the two relevant excerpts:

[Harlan] has felt himself called upon to isolate himself from his brothers on the Supreme Bench, and to place himself before the country as the true expounder of the Constitution as amended, and of the duty of the National Government to protect and defend the rights of citizens against any infringement of their liberty. The opinion which he has given to the country, as to the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill, places his name among the ablest jurists who have occupied the Supreme Court. No utterance from that Bench, since the celebrated and splendid opinion given by Judge Curtis against Judge Taney’s infamous Dred Scott decision, has equaled this opinion in ability, thoroughness, comprehensiveness and conclusive reasoning. Compared with it the decision of the eight judges was an egg shell to a cannon ball. We are told in Scripture that one shall chase a thousand, but one opinion like this could put to flight ten thousand of such decisions as the thin, gaunt and hungry one which denies the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill, and the duty of the Federal Government to protect the rights and liberties of its own citizens. No man, unless blinded by passion, prejudice, or selfishness, can read this opinion without respect and admiration for the man behind it. Where the decision of the Court is narrow, superficial and technical, the opinion of Judge Harlan is broad and generous, and grapples with substance rather than shadow, with things as they are rather than with abstractions…

As to Justice M. Harlan, no man in America at this moment occupies a more enviable position. His attitude is one of marked moral sublimity. The marvel is that, born in a slave State, as he was, and accustomed to see the colored man degraded, oppressed and enslaved, and the white man exalted; surrounded by the peculiar moral vapor inseparable from the slave system, he should so clearly comprehend the lessons of the late war and the principles of reconstruction, and, above all, that in these easy going days he should find himself possessed of the courage to resist the temptation to go with the multitude. He has chosen to discharge a difficult and delicate duty, and he has done it with great fidelity, skill and effect. In other days, when Garrison, Phillips, Sumner, Wilson and others spoke, wrote and moved among men, Old Massachusetts did not leave to Kentucky the honor of supplying the Supreme Bench with a moral hero.  That State then spoke through the cultivated and legal mind of Judge Curtis. Happily for us, however, Kentucky has not only supplied the needed strength and courage to stem the current of pro-slavery reaction, but she has also supplied in Justice Harlan patience, wisdom, industry and legal ability, as well as heroic courage.

F Douglassw article

Update (3/12/2018): Upon going back through the scrapbook, I found a second copy of Douglass’s American Reformer article pasted in the scrapbook. This article had the handwritten date 12/8/1883 written on it.

3 Responses to “Letter from Frederick Douglass to John Marshall Harlan”

  1. This is a great post. Thank you for sharing. In the latter 1880s Douglass sent a letter to Harlan praising his decision in a ruling on a temperance law in Kansas. I believe the letter is in the FD Papers at LOC. Let me find the source / link and post here.

    – John Muller

  1. 1 “MR. DOUGLASS AS A TALKER.” by BY ROBERT H. TERRELL. | Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia

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