James Harlan (June 22, 1800 – February 18, 1863) was an attorney and politician, a U.S. Representative from Kentucky. He also served as US Attorney for Kentucky and, prior to that, as Kentucky Secretary of State and Attorney General, the first to be elected to the latter office statewide.
Born in Mercer County, Kentucky, Harlan attended school before working as a clerk in a dry goods store from 1817 to 1821. Deciding to embark upon a legal career, he read law under the guidance of a local judge before gaining admission to the bar in 1823. Harlan commenced practice in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and enjoyed a busy but not especially remunerative legal career. He served as a Commonwealth's Attorney from 1829 until 1835.
A follower of Henry Clay, Harlan was soon involved in local and state politics. In 1833, he managed the reelection campaign of Congressman Robert P. Letcher. When Letcher decided not to run for another term, Harlan ran successfully to replace him. Harlan was elected as an Anti-Jacksonian to the Twenty-fourth Congress and reelected as a Whig to the Twenty-fifth Congress (serving March 4, 1835 – March 4, 1839).
In 1840, Letcher, who had won election as governor of Kentucky, appointed Harlan as Secretary of State of Kentucky, an office he held for the duration of Letcher's term. In 1845, Harlan was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, serving three terms until 1851. He was elected Attorney General of Kentucky in 1850, the first man elected statewide as attorney general. He served until 1859 as the state's attorney general (during which time he wrote The Code of Practice in Civil and Criminal Cases). Two years later, Harlan was appointed U.S. Attorney for Kentucky by President Abraham Lincoln, and he served in that capacity until his death in Frankfort on February 18, 1863.
James Harlan married Eliza Shannon Davenport (1805–70) on December 23, 1822. The couple had six sons and three daughters. One of their sons, John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911), followed his father into the law, becoming an attorney and a judge. Ultimately he was appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, where he dissented in the important Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) civil rights case, standing up for equal rights under the law. He was also a great-grandfather of another Supreme Court justice, John Marshall Harlan II (1899–1971).
In addition, Harlan may have had a relationship with a mulatto slave and a son by her, Robert James Harlan, born in 1816. He raised the mixed-race boy in his household, where Robert was tutored by two older half-brothers. After having a successful businesses in Harrodsburg and Lexington, Robert went to California during the Gold Rush and earned a fortune of $90,000. He returned to the Midwest, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1851 and investing in real estate. He was elected as a state legislator in 1886.
Harlan was buried in Frankfort Cemetery.