America’s Most Infamous Chief Justice: A Profile of Roger B. Taney

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  This profile examines the career, personal views, and legacy of Roger B. Taney, America’s most infamous Chief Justice. Although Taney had a long and notable career, the Dred Scott case of 1857 became his legacy. In Dred Scott v Sandford, Taney ruled
    Bender 1 America’s Most Infamous Chief Justice:  A Profile of Roger B. Taney Brandon Michael Bender More than 150 years after the disastrous Dred Scott decision, the United States continues to wrestle with its past -- especially its legacy with slavery. The last few years have seen Confederate monuments toppled and ex-southern heroes rebranded as villains. Roger B. Taney, a  prominent 19th Century politician, had his own statues removed with surprisingly little controversy in August 2017 (Wamsley). Taney (pronounced taw -ny) was a special case, though, because he was no southern hero and was certainly never a Confederate. Taney, a loyal Unionist, served as Chief Justice of the United States from 1836-1864. His career culminated in 1857 when he handed down the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that  blacks could not be U.S. citizens and that Congress could make no laws restricting the expansion of slavery.  Above Right: Portrait of Roger B. Taney  by Stephen Alcorn, 1992. It was the latest in a long line of events that eventually led to the Civil War. Routinely disparaged by north and south alike since his death in 1864, Taney represents an interesting    Bender 2 middle ground. He was too pro-southern to be embraced by the north, and as a jurist who stayed loyal to the Union, was largely ignored by the rebel south. He even came from Maryland, a tormented border state, neither wholly north or south. Fittingly, Taney himself was full of contradictions. He intended to solve the slavery issue, but instead inflamed it. He issued the most  prejudiced ruling in U.S. history, yet he freed his own slaves as soon as he inherited them. As a young man, he called slavery “a blot on our national character,” but  as an old man, denied humanity itself to blacks. This ambiguity makes Chief Justice Taney a fascinating case study; his views were not set in stone, but rather dynamic -- and those changing views led him down a destructive and infamous path. Taney was born in Maryland in 1777, just a year after the birth of the nation. Although he came from a long line of aristocratic tobacco growers, Roger was not the eldest child and was not expected to inherit the plantation. His father had other ideas, hoping that Roger would become a lawyer, and for good reason. All could see that Roger was highly intelligent, blessed with an analytical mind, sharp focus, and driving ambition (Simon 7). By 22, he was a practicing attorney and, thanks to his father’s connections, soon i nvolved himself in politics. For the next couple decades, Taney served in local and state politics while practicing law, as well. By middle age, Taney had become one of Maryland’s premier lawyers, but he looked more like a strict headmaster than a high-charged attorney: he was tall and gaunt, prone to illness. He dressed in drab, dark colors and wore his sharply-receded hair long, parting it steeply in the top right corner of his head, where it fell down over his ears and sometimes as far as his shoulders. In hindsight, he bears a striking resemblance to  Harry Potter  ’s Severus Snape, another ambiguous and complicated figure. Taney’s personality matched his looks. He was serious, but not pretentious. He spoke simply and quietly to the courtroom, making the most complex issues    Bender 3 appear simple. “He had a moonlight mind,” wrote a colleague. “Like the moonlight of the arctics, he gave all the light of day without its glare” (Simon 13).    Below Right: Portrait of Roger Brooke Taney  by George Peter Alexander Healy. Taney also made his thoughts on slavery known around this time when he defended the Reverend Jacob Gruber, an abolitionist preacher, in 1819. Gruber stood accused of trying to cause slave unrest after a particularly fiery anti-slavery sermon (Huebner). Taney successfully defended Gruber, adding his own opinion in the process: “Slavery…is a blot on our national character,” Taney said. “…every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away…every friend of humanity will seek to lighten the galling chain of slavery, and better, to the utmost of his power, the wretched condition of the slave.” Privately, Taney seemed to agree. His slaves were all free by this point, with the elderly ones provided with stipends. As prominent as Taney had become as an attorney, his career did not truly take off until he hitched himself to Andrew Jackson. Taney supported Jackson’s campaign efforts and was thrilled to see his man elected to the presidency in 1828 and 1832. Jackson rewarded Taney (whose name Jackson spelled “Tauny,” as if to help remember the pronunciation) by appointing him to a variety of federal positions, most significantly Secretary of the Treasury. As Secretary of Treasury, Taney proved a useful soldier in Jackson’s war against the Bank of the United States, which the president felt had grown too powerful (Cheatham 200). Willing to obey Jackson’s orders where others had refused, Taney was instrumental in the bank’s downfall. He    Bender 4 earned a reputation as either a forceful ally of Jackson’s or as Jackson’s “pliant tool,” depending on where one’s sympathies rested (Simon 25, 31).  More significantly, Jackson rewarded Taney by nominating him to the Supreme Court in 1835. Co ngress, still resenting Jackson’s ruthless bank war, rejected Taney’s nomination. Jackson was never one to back down, though. He appointed Taney to the Supreme Court again the next year when the venerable Chief Justice John Marshall died. Enough seats had turned over in Congress that the nomination succeeded. Taney had reached the height of American legal  power and as the era of Chief Justice Taney began, his enemies predicted gloom and destruction. “Taney looked like the anti - Jacksonians’ worst nightmare: a smart, articulate idealogue,” writes legal historian Paul Finkelman. It would take decades for those gloomy predictions to come true, though. Instead, Taney won over most of his colleagues, and even his enemies, with his gracious, magnanimous personality . “Chief Justice Taney’s understated leadership won him belated accolades from his most diehard critics,” notes historian James F. Simon (42). Justice Samuel Miller, for example, despised Taney initially but was pleasantly surprised by the man he met (Hall 142). “Before the first term of service in the court had passed, I more than liked him,” Miller said of his time on the Taney court. “I loved him.” Taney’s rulings also earned him a reputation as a flexible justice who was not limited to voting along sectional lines. In the early 1840s, Taney silently agreed with the majority opinion in the famous  Amistad   case, which ruled that kidnapped Africans on a Spanish ship would not be returned to their captors as stolen  property because their capture had been illegal. In other cases, Taney conceded that free states had the right to ban slavery within their borders, taking a hands-off approach to the issue.    Bender 5 But the seeds of Dred Scott were already there. As early as the 1830s, Taney’s view on slavery was changing, a s evidenced by an unpublished opinion of legal advice he’d written for President Jackson around this time. Using eerily similar arguments to his later opinion in Dred Scott, Taney advised Jackson that the framers of the Constitution did not consider blacks to be citizens and that neither the federal government nor international treaty could limit slavery’s expansion. “The opinion would be stored away like a time bomb,” Simon says,   “to be detonated a quarter century later in  Dred Scott v. Sandford. ” Pre sumably no one but Jackson read the opinion and the country moved along as usual, focused on other issues. Taney, who had become Chief Justice at 59, presided over well-respected and disciplined court for the next twenty years with little controversy. By 1857, Taney was a seasoned veteran of the Supreme Court, but few could have expected him to live as long as he did. He had always been sickly. Plagued with frequent colds and digestive issues, he was “constantly fussing about some real or imagined ailment” (Naden and Blue 65). Accordingly, it would not have been surprising if the elderly Chief Justice had died  by the late 1850s. If he had, Taney’s reputation would likely be very different today. Historians would remember an understated, pragmatic Chief Justice who presided over one of the most stable periods in the court’s history. Taney would have seemed almost universally admired, or at least respected, by his contemporaries. He may have even appeared progressive for a man of his era and background. He had approached the controversial slavery issue with great caution even though he came from a wealthy, slave-owning family. Even in his personal life, Taney may have appeared friendly  –   or at least benign  –   toward blacks considering that he had manumitted his own slaves.
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