Historical Marker #1606, located at the Boyle County Courthouse in Danville, commemorates John Marshall Harlan, a Boyle County native, Civil War veteran, and U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Born a few miles west of Danville in 1833, Harlan's family lived there and in Harrodsburg before moving to Frankfort. Harlan graduated from Centre College in 1850, studied law at Transylvania University, and then opened a legal practice in Frankfort. There, he also became the Franklin County judge executive.
When the Civil War erupted, Harlan was a staunch Unionist. He worked to keep Kentucky in the Union and raised the 10th Kentucky (Union) Infantry Regiment, which fought in several battles and skirmishes. In addition, in late 1862, Harlan commanded a brigade while fighting near Hartsville and Rome, Tennessee. In several instances, Harlan chased Confederate raider and Kentucky native John Hunt Morgan. Harlan's military career, however, was cut short when his father died in 1863. Although he was reputedly being considered for promotion to brigadier general, Harlan resigned his commission and returned to Frankfort in order to handle his father's business affairs.
Elected Kentucky attorney general, after the war he twice unsuccessfully ran for governor on the Republican ticket. In 1877, after supporting Rutherford B. Hayes for president, Hayes appointed Harlan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan held that seat until 1911. There, he became known as the "Great Dissenter." His most famous lone dissent was Plessy v. Ferguson in which he argued against the decision to allow "separate but equal" public facilities (including schools) for African Americans. As the historical marker explains, "he authored 1161 opinions, spoke for the Court 745 times and wrote 316 dissents. Harlan was a highly respected jurist because of his individualism, dedication, and courage. He dissented with vigor, often alone, on issues of civil rights, interstate commerce, and income tax. Many of his dissents became the law of the land."
Harlan died in Washington, D.C. in 1911. Today, he is remembered as being one of the great justices of the United States Supreme Court.