Summary

Birth:
17 Mar 1777 1
Calvert County, Maryland, 1
Death:
12 Oct 1864 1
Washington, D.C. 1
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Full Name:
Roger B. Taney 1
Also known as:
Roger Brooke Taney 1
Birth:
17 Mar 1777 1
Calvert County, Maryland, 1
Death:
12 Oct 1864 1
Washington, D.C. 1

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Stories

Dred Scott

In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permiting slavery in all of the country's territories.

The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom. 

Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from northern aggression -- wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it." 

Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . ."

Abolitionists were incensed. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright side to the decision and announced, "my hopes were never brighter than now." For Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step toward slavery's ultimate destruction. 


Portrait of Roger Taney.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Roger Taney

b. March 17, 1777, Calvert County, MD
d. December 12, 1864, Washington, D.C.


Fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
(1836-1864)


Son of a well-to-do family of tobacco farmers, Roger Taney graduated from Dickinson College in 1795 and was admitted to the bar in 1799. A Federalist, he served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1799 to 1800 and was a local Federalist leader until he broke with the party over its opposition to the War of 1812. Later he took control of the Maryland Federalist Party and was elected in 1816 to serve a five-year term in the state senate. In 1824, as the Federalist Partyweakened, Taney supported Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson. Jackson became president in 1829, and two years later he appointed Taney Attorney General to assist him in the controversial dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States. Taney helped draft Jackson's statement vetoing the bank's renewal, and he assumed the post of Secretary of the Treasury in 1833 to withdraw all federal funds from the bank, something two previous treasury secretaries had refused to do.

Taney was a political operative, gentle in manner and likable. Though he was involved in controversial actions of the Jackson administration, he largely escaped personal attack. He was frail and afraid of crowds; he suffered from stage fright when arguing cases in court; his voice was feeble; but his presentations were clear and convincing. Jackson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1835, but the Senate, angered by his role in the national bank affair, refused to confirm him. After the death of Chief Justice John Marshall the following year, Jackson renominated Taney, this time as chief justice, and the Senate, with a changed membership, confirmed his appointment.

In many matters, Taney followed the judicial philosophy of the Marshall Court. He generally supported the primacy of federal power, but he believed that beyond a certain line political authority was vested in the states, and it was the Supreme Court's role to determine exactly where that line lay. 

The opinion that forever marked the Taney Court was issued in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Although no ardent defender of slavery, Taney was an advocate of moderate states' rights, and as slavery became a heated point of contention between the states and federal authorities, his position toward it hardened. On March 15, 1857, he delivered the majority opinion in the case, stating that African Americans, free or slave, could not be citizens of any state, that they were "of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race." This decision and its inflammatory language aggravated the political crisis and met with furious opposition among Republicans. Taney remained defiant. Writing to Franklin Pierce in 1857, he declared that he believed with "abiding confidence that this act of my judicial life will stand the test of time and the sober judgment of the country." When Abraham Lincoln became president, he treated Taney as an enemy and defied a Taney decision forbidding him to suspend habeas corpus in portions of Maryland after the outbreak of the Civil War (Ex parte Merryman [1861]). When Taney died in Washington in 1864, the prestige of the Supreme Court was at a low ebb and Taney himself was widely vilified.

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