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Some Memories of a Long Life, 1845-1911 - Malvina Shanklin Harlan

An Inspiring Inkstand


Vividly associated in my mind with our Massachusetts Avenue home is an interesting episode that formed the closing chapter in the story of a certain historic inkstand, which played an unexpected, dramatic and inspiring part in one of the most important of my husband’s numerous "dissenting opinions."


My husband was always profoundly interested in places and objects connected with the history of the country; and for that purpose, during his first years in Washington, he made numerous visits of discovery to the different portions of the beautiful Capitol building that for more than a century had housed the Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States. He found much to interest him, not only in the hall (now known as the Statuary Hall) where the House of Representatives sat until 1857 and in the old Senate Chamber (now the Supreme Court Room) that had resounded to the eloquence of Calhoun, Clay and Webster, but in the numerous small objects that were associated with the great men of the past.


One day during (I think) his second or third year in Washington, in the office of the Marshal of the Supreme Court he spied a very old-fashioned and unique inkstand. At each end of the little wooden inkstand (which rested on four small balls, one at each corner, answering as feet) was a small ink-well, covered with a metal top. Between the two wells was a small glass jar or box, with a perforated top, that contained the sand which in the early days did the work of our "blotters." Across the front of the stand, the wood was hollowed out into a little groove for the pen-holders.


The quaint little inkstand had about it such an air of mystery and history, that my husband asked the Marshal for its story. He learned that it had belonged to Chief Justice Taney and that it was the one constantly used by him in his judicial work. Those innocent wells had furnished the ink with which he penned the famous Dred Scott decision, which, more than any single event during the agitation over the Slavery Question in the ante-bellum days, had served to crystallize the anti-slavery feelings in the Northern States.


My husband’s interest in Taney’s inkstand was so marked, that the Marshal asked him if he would like to have it. My husband answering most eagerly in the affirmative, the Marshal at once wrapped up the historic little inkstand and gave it to my husband, who put it in his coat pocket and brought it home as a great treasure.


One evening, shortly after we had moved into our Massachusetts Avenue home, we were present at a large evening reception. My husband was engaged in conversation with a very charming woman, the wife of Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. Though I took no part in the conversation, I was near enough to hear it. They had been exchanging views about the many interesting things that were often found in most unexpected places about the Capitol, and my husband was telling her about the treasure-trove upon which he had once stumbled in the Marshal’s office.


Mrs. Pendleton’s interest was most marked, and, after hearing a minute description of the inkstand and the part it had played in the epoch-making decision in the Dred Scott case, she exclaimed,


"Mr. Justice, I would so love to have that little inkstand. Chief Justice Taney was a kinsman of my family." (I think he was Mrs. Pendleton’s great-uncle).


My husband’s feeling for women was so chivalric that without hesitation he promised to send her the little inkstand the very next day.


At that time, his invariable rule was to work very late at night. Even after a reception he generally went into his study for an hour or more of work before going to bed.


After he left me that night for his study, I began to think of the promise he had so rashly made to Mrs. Pendleton. Knowing as I did how much he prized that historic inkstand, a strong impulse took possession of me and I thus argued it out to myself:


"Why should he give that inkstand away? He values it more than it is possible for any woman to do, for he appreciates the part it played in the history of the Nation. I won’t let him part with it."


Whether that impulse came from above, or from the Evil One, may perhaps be best answered by the third chapter of my story of the Taney Inkstand. I confess, however, that during the secret part which I played in the second chapter, my conscience somewhat troubled me, for I never hid anything from my husband.


Next day, his much-enjoyed morning nap (which the children and the servants knew must never be disturbed) gave me my opportunity — one which the events of several months later will show to have been most opportune, not to say providential; for I think I was instrumental thereby in adding a real glory to an already historic inkstand, making it to my children a very precious heirloom.


Going that morning to my husband’s study on the third floor, while he slept, I found the treasured inkstand hidden away under an accumulation of law papers, briefs and opinions, and I carried it away to my room and hid it among my own treasures.


In due time his nap was over and the day’s work begun. Among the first things he thought of was the promise he had made the night before to Mrs. Pendleton. A search for the little inkstand proved unavailing and all his questions to me were met with an "evasive answer" which headed off suspicion. He wrote a note to Mrs. Pendleton telling her of the inexplicable loss of the inkstand, but that, as soon as he could find it, he would keep his promise.


As time went on he forgot all about it and I took good care that the inkstand should remain hidden.


A few months afterwards, the Court decided the famous "Civil Rights" case, involving the constitutionality of the Act of 1873, which was introduced by Charles Sumner for the purpose of assuring civil rights to the negroes throughout the Union.


As all lawyers know, the Court declared the Sumner Act unconstitutional, my husband alone dissenting.


His dissent (which many lawyers consider to have been one of his greatest opinions) cost him several months of absorbing labour — his interest and anxiety often disturbing his sleep. Many times he would get up in the middle of the night, in order to jot down some thought or paragraph which he feared might elude him in the morning. It was a trying time for him. In point of years, he was much the youngest man on the Bench; and standing alone, as he did in regard to a decision which the whole country was anxiously awaiting, he felt that, on a question of such far-reaching importance, he must speak, not only forcibly but wisely.


In the preparation of his dissenting opinion, he had reached a stage when his thoughts refused to flow easily. He seemed to be in a quagmire of logic, precedent and law. Sunday morning came, and as the plan which had occurred to me, in my wakeful hours of the night before, had to be put into action during his absence from the house, I told him that I would not go to church with him that day. Nothing ever kept him from church.


As soon as he had left the house, I found the long-hidden Taney inkstand, gave it a good cleaning and polishing, and filled it with ink. Then taking all the other ink-wells from his study table, I put that historic, and inspiring inkstand directly before his pad of paper; and, as I looked at it, Taney’s inkstand seemed to say to me, "I will help him."


I was on the look-out for his return, and met him at the front door. In as cheery a voice as I could muster (for I was beginning to feel somewhat conscience-stricken as I recalled those "evasive answers" of several months before), I said to him:


"I have put a bit of inspiration on your study table. I believe it is just what you need and I am sure it will help you."


He was full of curiosity, which I refused to gratify. As soon as possible he went to his study. His eye lighting upon the little inkstand, he came running down to my room to ask where in the world I had found it. With mingled shame and joy I then "fessed up," telling him how I had secretly hidden the inkstand in the early morning after his impulsive promise to Mrs. Pendleton, because I knew how much he prized and loved it, and felt sure it ought really not to go out of his possession. He laughed over my naughty act and freely forgave it.


The memory of the historic part that Taney’s inkstand had played in the Dred Scott decision, in temporarily tightening the shackles of slavery upon the negro race in the ante-bellum days, seemed, that morning, to act like magic in clarifying my husband’s thoughts in regard to the law that had been intended by Sumner to protect the recently emancipated slaves in the enjoyment of equal "civil rights." His pen fairly flew on that day and, with the running start he then got, he soon finished his dissent.


It was, I think, a bit of "poetic justice" that the small inkstand in which Taney’s pen had dipped when he wrote that famous (or rather infamous) sentence in which he said that "a black man had no rights which a white man was bound to respect," should have furnished the ink for a decision in which the black man’s claim to equal civil rights was as powerfully, and even passionately asserted, as it was in my husband’s dissenting opinion in the famous "Civil Rights" case.



Please note that this entire issue is devoted to the publication of the memoirs written by the wife of Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served on the Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911. Justice Ginsburg's Foreword describes publication of the memoir "a cause for celebration."

"Like Abigail Adams a century before her, Malvina Harlan used astute powers of observation and a natural gift with words to leave a written legacy, one that illuminated not only her life and that of her famous husband, Justice John Marshall Harlan, but the momentous times in which they lived," The New York Times, August 5, 2001.



"Harlan, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, was a skilled and astute observer of 19th-century American politics and society. "Some Memories of a Long Life" is a significant historical document, not only capturing our national experience from the Civil War to the early modern eras but also including many pieces authored by her famous husband" - Library Journal