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John Marshall Harlan the Elder is best known for his lonely judicial dissents in favor of civil rights for African-Americans, such as Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. A life-long Calvinist Presbyterian, Harlan had come to understand the Civil War as part of God’s plan to free the nation from the sin of slavery. Borrowing the method of typology from Bible reading, Harlan saw the Civil War as following the type set by the American founders who had overthrown the tyranny of kings. A former slaveholder, Harlan retained the idea that Anglo-Saxons were particularly good at creating constitutional governments. Anglo-Saxonism prompted him to try to extend equal rights to his church’s Presbyteries and to the inhabitants of American colonies after the Spanish-American war, but to avoid talking about so-called social rights that involved inter-racial schooling and marriage. His philosophy of legal formalism could not solve the problems of logic that resulted.
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