Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,221Comments
This is the grave of Roger Taney.
Born in 1777 in Calvert County, Maryland, Taney grew up in the Catholic elite of Maryland. That was a lot less powerful than it had been early in Maryland’s founding as Protestants eventually took power from the papists but the Catholics remained a strong force in that colony, especially among its elite classes.
Taney’s early life was relatively unexceptional in that he was just a bog standard member of the elite. He went to Dickinson College, graduated in 1796, read for the bar in Maryland, passed it in 1799, and started practicing. He married an elite Protestant woman and didn’t care that their kids were raised as Episcopalians, though he remained a practicing Catholic his whole life. He started a successful practice in Frederick, Maryland.
Taney was initially a Federalist, as most elite Catholics were. He ran for the Maryland legislature in 1799 and won thanks to his father working the political machinery, but he lost his reelection the next year. He just went back to his law practice for the next couple of decades. He left the Federalist Party because of their pro-English stance in the War of 1812. To say the least, he became a committed Jacksonian once that became a possibility, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He finally returned to electoral politics in 1816 when he won election to the Maryland state senate.
Now, Taney was a pretty weird dude. Was he a white supremacist? You bet he was. That’s why you know him today. Was he among the worst white supremacists of his time? No, not at all. This is a very low bar, I grant you. But Taney inherited slaves from his family and freed them all. He paid them money to help them out. He defended the rights of anti-slavery speakers when he was a lawyer. But none of this at all precluded someone from being a committed white supremacist. We can see this in all sorts of ways in the nineteenth century, including abolitionists being all-in on genocide toward the tribes and Chinese exclusion. Your 21st century liberalism had no place in the 19th century.
Taney transformed pretty significantly as time went on, it’s true. By the time he was Attorney General of Maryland in 1827, he was a fairly committed states-rights person and a big supporter of Andrew Jackson. By 1831, Jackson had brought Taney to Washington as a top advisor after the Peggy O’Neill Eaton affair blew up his Cabinet. Taney became Attorney General during this shakeup. Taney cheered on Jackson’s war on the banks and when Secretary of the Treasury William Duane rightfully refused to remove federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, Jackson fired him and named Taney Secretary of the Treasury, without him resigning as AG, because the president knew Taney would do whatever he wanted. The Senate was so disgusted by how this went down that it rejected Taney’s nomination for Secretary of the Treasury (it was initially a recess appointment). This was the first rejection of a Cabinet nominee in American history.
To reject Taney from anything from just going to make Jackson double down. So when John Marshall died, a Chief Justice Jackson despised, he nominated Taney as his replacement. Taney was so hated by a lot of senators that this was briefly delayed, but further Democratic gains in 1835 allowed Jackson to see the nomination through.
Horrified at Taney’s actions with the banks, Whigs thought Taney would destroy the entire idea of federal supervision of the economy and judicial supremacy. But he didn’t go that far. He was a states rights guy, no question about that. But he didn’t really overturn Marshall’s legacy. In fact, outside of the horror of Dred Scott, he was a reasonably minor figure in American court history, despite his long tenure as Chief Justice. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, he did write in a 5-2 decision against the idea of a bridge monopoly, which outraged the Whigs. But mostly the court found nuance in these mid-nineteenth century economic questions.
Even on questions of slavery, Taney wasn’t a far-right pro-slavery figure. He absolutely felt that slavery was guaranteed in the Constitution and would rule that way consistently. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, he joined a 5-1 decision written by Joseph Story that upheld the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. But he also joined Story’s decision in the Amistad case that freed those Africans who had mutinied against the slave ship selling them illegally. In Strader v. Graham, he wrote for a majority that included usually anti-slavery justices that Kentucky slaves who had gone to Ohio for a musical performance were not free because they voluntarily went back to Kentucky.
All of this of course sets up Dred Scott and there’s nothing good to say about Taney’s actions in this case. In fact, Taney’s extremism here was a bit out of ordinary for him. Again, he was absolutely a total racist. When he wrote that “regarded as beings of an inferior order, altogether unfit to associate with the white race … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” this was a major statement. It was also one agreed upon by the majority of white Americans. I might also note here that Taney’s decisions was not just hated by the growing anti-slavery movement, it was also pilloried from the right wing of his own court, especially the Virginian Peter Daniel who thought it a total sellout on core slavery principles. In other words, Taney was more or less in the middle of the white population when it came to issues of slavery. It’s just that the middle of the white population when it came to slavery was so overwhelmingly disgusting that it’s very easy and quite rightful to see Taney as a total villain today. He was a villain. It’s just that lots of other people were too.
The other thing about the Dred Scott decision that makes it just bonkers is the idea of throwing out the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional. From a political perspective, this was just unconscionable. Now, I tend to follow Lemieux’s position that Dred Scott did not really change the course of American history and that it was more representative of the period than something that significantly moved us toward civil war. I think that’s largely right. I’d only say that northern populations so strongly believed in the Missouri Compromise as the reason they thought they could sweep slavery under the rug that pulling that rug away was a huge shock to the system.
In other words, Dred Scott is a lot like the decisions of the contemporary Supreme Court, radical right decisions that are totally disconnected from the reality of politics in the United States because the justices just didn’t care what people thought about it.
Well, Dred Scott destroyed Taney’s reputation, quite deservedly. Benjamin Robbins Curtis actually resigned from the Court in disgust, which is the only time I know of that a justice stepped down out of outrage over a single political decision. Taney tried to over rule Abraham Lincoln‘s executive actions during the early years of the Civil War, but with so many justices resigning because they supported treason in defense of slavery, Taney was now in the minority and could mostly only sputter with rage about the expansion of executive authority. But Taney wasn’t going to resign. Oh no.
In fact, Taney lived in rage until he died, at the age of 87, in 1864 on the very day that Maryland outlawed slavery. Which of course did not affect Taney since he had freed all his own slaves long ago.
In conclusion, Taney was a pretty evil and awful but also weird guy whose public positions on race and slavery represented at least half of white America, some of whom thought he was a softy on it, and his personal actions don’t at all make up for any of this. But they are worth noting. The 19th century was a strange place.
Roger Taney is buried in Saint John’s Cemetery, Frederick, Maryland.
If you would like this series to visit other Chief Justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Oliver Ellsworth is in Windsor, Connecticut and Morrison Waite is in Toledo, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.