Analyzing a Document in John Marshall Harlan Disagreement with The Ruling in Plessy V. Ferguson

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About this sample


Words: 1058 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 1058|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

The period following reconstruction was one of great regression in terms of racial equality in the United States. This era of Redemption saw many pieces of legislations and court decisions that diminished the rights of the recently freedmen, with Democrats taking more control over the political arena. The court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, regarding segregation in public facilities, was key in the advancement of segregation, having a 7-1 decision, with only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissenting. In his “Dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson” document, Harlan explains the damaging precedence the decisions created, both in a socially moral manner as well as in its lawful standing. His words not only describe the political and social ideology of the time, but also present a grave foreshadowing for the future of equality in the country.

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Harlan argues at first the citizenship of races, describing how there must be no difference in citizenship rights between two races. “... such legislation [...] is inconsistent not only with that equality of rights which pertains to citizenship […] but with the personal liberty enjoyed by everyone within the United States.” (Foner 54) Supporting this argument he uses the legal basis of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments which provide the utmost right of citizenship and vote to everyone born or naturalized in the United States regardless of race.

The dissenter explains his perspective on how the decision is abhorrent for future legal equality. He attacks the idea that Court has upholding “equal rights” to everyone as he sees the issue of dividing cars for each race: “not to exclude white persons from railroad card occupied by blacks, [but] to exclude black persons from cars occupied by or assigned to white persons.” (Foner 55). By explaining the concept of “personal liberty” Harlan explains how the decision actually violates the power people have to be wherever they are restricted by due course of law. This due course of law is of course nonexistent in his eyes as he coined the significant phrase: “Our constitution is color blind and neither knows or tolerates the classes among citizens.”

Harlan’s dissent demonstrates a lot of the problems in the American society and politics of the Redemption era. As the judge accurately predicts, Plessy v. Ferguson was just the start of a long list of landmark decisions against racial equality. The case gave way to many more abuses in this time, presenting a legal precedent for further racism in laws such as the Jim Crow laws. Even more cases of service segregation continued because of the tense racial society in the United States, with cases such as the Lum v. Rice decision in which a Chinese-American was prohibited from attending her local high school, even though by law she forced to attend.

It is essential to note the political background of this decision, as reflected by Harlan’s document, especially that of the Separate Car Act. The Plessy v. Ferguson case was just a response to this act which essentially mandated different railroad cars for each race. The act fought on the idea that Harlan constantly criticizes that it was inherently lawful as it gave “…equal but separate services…” (Foner 56) As the ideas of the other judges reflect, society saw this act as not establishing a superior or inferior race, but one that simply attempted to provide both races the same kind of service. Considering that the plaintiff Homer Plessy in this case was rejected from a white car despite being only 1/8th black, this piece of legislation and the sole dissent demonstrate how socially and culturally segregation was deeply entrenched.

The fears Harlan held for the future of racial equality explicit in his description of the decision and its possible effects. The judge goes to the point as to compare the Plessy v. Ferguson case as one with possibly equal consequence as the Dred Scott case of the 1850s which enabled the South to maintain their slavery on power. Harlan views the future of rights of black citizens as one bleak, especially predicting a stronger segregation in voter registration. “no citizen should be denied, on account of his race, the privilege of participating in the political control of this country…” (Foner 55) As this political power was reduced for black citizens, also did their chances to fight and obtain the civil rights they deserved.

Despite strongly explaining the damages of the court decision in which he was involved, Harlan’s dissent has a few weaknesses across it. One of the most important of these is his apparent contradicting views on equal rights. His writing “Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.” (Harlan) alludes to a certain racism towards Chinese-Americans. As history would eventually tell, he would also continue to dissent in the case United States v. Wong Kim Ark in which he asserts the dangers of Chinese immigrants immigrating to the United States.

Aside from presenting these contradicting views on race, Harlen missed to present few elements in his dissent. The document lacked a more detailed description of the society and politics of the historical period. The dissenter fails to explain the thorough position of the other members of the Supreme Court, as he never attacks directly the arguments for which they voted opposite of him in the case. In this same line of though, he fails to describe any kind of social reaction to the Separate Car Act or the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, valuable information to understand the context of his dissent. With no mention of other proponents of his ideas, or arguments presented by other politically active actors of the time, his dissent falls a bit short.

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Despite this, it’s important not to forget the great value of this article, both for its social standing as well as its use historical studies. Giving a direct criticism of the jury of the time and providing a strong basis on the actual Constitution, Harlan’s arguments stand tall as a lone dissenter. As his words are read in the future, his dark hopes and predictions of the future did become true, hardships that would remain unchanged until the eventual Civil Rights movement.

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Analyzing A Document In John Marshall Harlan Disagreement With The Ruling In Plessy V. Ferguson. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from
“Analyzing A Document In John Marshall Harlan Disagreement With The Ruling In Plessy V. Ferguson.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019,
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