Light on a life in the shadow of greatness

A newly discovered memoir by the wife of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan takes readers backstage

In 1915, Malvina Shanklin Harlan sat down to write the story not of her life, which she thought of little account, but of her married life to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who had died in 1911. John Harlan was not only Malvina Harlan's husband but her hero, and she was determined to show posterity that it was Harlan's probity, intelligence, and industry that brought him to the forefront of national life.

John and Malvina were raised when the young American republic still cast itself in the image of Rome, and her book is an act of what the Romans called pietas – loving duty. The wife celebrates her husband's virtues – his religious faith, manly strength, moral fiber, and family affections. The Harlan hierarchy – he the achieving public figure, she the loyal wife and mother – personified the Victorian marital ideal, which Malvina saw passing with the advent of the "New Woman."

Justice Harlan is an important figure in American legal history, most notably as the lone dissenter in the notorious 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which legitimized "separate but equal" treatment of African-Americans long after the abolition of slavery.

Harlan has been amply studied, notably in the 1999 biography by Linda Przybyszewski, who expertly annotates Mrs. Harlan's long-neglected "Memories." (The book also includes an epilogue by Harlan's great-great-grand- daughter, Amelia Newcomb, an editor at the Monitor.) Now, thanks in good part to the research of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we have the chance to become acquainted with an accomplished yet modest woman who, for many years, was in a position to observe Washington's social and political elite.

Malvina begins not with her birth in 1839 or her early family life in pioneer Indiana, but with her first glimpse, at age 15, of the 20-year-old man who would be her husband. Sixty-one years have passed, but "she can still see him as he looked that day – his magnificent figure, his head erect, his broad shoulders well thrown back – walking as if the whole world belonged to him."

John Harlan was as smitten by Malvina as she by him, and he proposed marriage within days. Though the proposal letter Harlan wrote to Malvina's father mentioned only his affection and admiration for the daughter, the Shanklins' wealth must have played a part in Harlan's rapid decision. He was a young lawyer with his way to make in the world, and his father had nine other children variously dependent upon him for support. With typical self-deprecation, Malvina says that the only reason for John's love for her was that he loved music and she was an excellent musician.

Malvina and John Harlan were both Presbyterians, born into successful families who played a leading role in their communities. But whereas the Evansville, Ind., Shanklins opposed slavery, the Frankfort, Ky., Harlans owned slaves.

Malvina's parents did not see the Harlans' slave ownership as an impediment to their daughter's marriage. Malvina says that her mother insisted she accept her husband's way of life and leave to him moral decisions on issues like slavery. "You love this man well enough to marry him," Mrs. Shanklin told her daughter. "Remember, now, that his home is YOUR home, his people YOUR people, his interests YOUR interests – you must have no other."

The sunny portrait of a Kentucky slave-owning household that Malvina gives in her "Memories" is testimony to her faithful obedience to her mother's instruction, her devotion to the Harlan family, and the pride she implicitly took in her own conjugal pietas.

While acknowledging the injustice and cruelty of slavery, Malvina insists that her in-laws were enlightened masters, that their slaves were happy and considered themselves members of the family. She recalls admiringly an occasion when her father-in-law cursed a cruel slave driver, and notes that he freed two of his slaves who went on to make good lives for themselves. She omits to mention that one of these men, Robert Harlan, was seven-eighths white, and may have been a close relative of her husband.

When his father died suddenly in 1863, John allowed his mother to retain all the family slaves, as she was so dependent on them for her comfort. And out of his own pocket, John paid his mother the price for all the slaves' freedom after the end of the Civil War. Praising her husband's kindness, Malvina does not question how much the slaves paid for his mother's comfort.

While Harlan was making a name for himself as a lawyer, soldier, politician, and finally a judge, Malvina brought up their family of six children. Of these children, and of her relationships with them, she says remarkably little. She notes that she encouraged her husband to follow his conscience and enroll in the Union Army, whatever this might entail for her and the children, but has nothing to say about how she and the children actually fared during the war. Even the death of her oldest daughter Edith, shortly after Edith married and gave birth, is described in the most minimalist terms. Sorrow weeps through the matter-of-fact details, but emotion runs too deep to be named.

Malvina allows us to see the surface of her life, to meet some of the notable people she knew, and to taste the surprisingly modest daily life of the family of a Supreme Court justice in the second half of the 19th century. In the later part of the book, she refers proudly to her sons' distinguished careers and happy marriages, but she's more ready to tell us about dinners with the William Howard Tafts than about her relations with her sons or their wives. She writes mainly of what she can praise. She worships her husband, loves her parents, respects her mother-in-law, and manages to become the pet of a father-in-law who frightens his own children. She moves briskly over experiences that must have been hard.

The largest "sin" Malvina Harlan will confess to in her married life is that she hid from an acquisitive woman the inkwell used by Justice Taney in the infamous Dred Scott case, only to present it symbolically to her husband as he struggled to complete his dissent in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The act, she notes with pride, galvanized John's thinking and enabled him to finish the opinion in short order.

For all its charming detail of running over for a visit with Lucy Hayes or having tea with Frances Hodgson Burnett, Malvina Harlan's stoic and guarded memoir is in some ways more 19th-century Scottish than 20th-century American. These simple "Memories" mask a complicated soul.

• Gillian Gill is the author of the recent biography "Mary Baker Eddy" (Perseus).

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