Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) (Part 2) – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams
Roger B. Taney was born and raised on a southern Maryland tobacco plantation. He attended Dickinson College and received a classical education before reading law under Jeremiah Chase, one of three judges on the state’s General Court. He passed the bar exam and married the sister of his close friend, Francis Scott Key. He entered politics and won a seat in the Maryland House as a Federalist. He supported the War of 1812 and broke with the Federalists over their opposition to the war. He adopted Jeffersonian views that would lay the foundation for the rise of the Democratic Party.
Taney disapproved of slavery earlier in his life and worked hard to improve the lot of African Americans. He had been a slave holder who privately manumitted, or voluntarily freed, his slaves and even provided financial support for the elderly slaves. In the state legislature, he supported efforts to protect free blacks against illegal capture and being forced into slavery.
In 1819, the lawyer defended the right of free speech for Jacob Gruber, an abolitionist preacher who attacked slavery. In his summation to the jury in Gruber’s 1819 trial for “inciting slaves to rebellion,” Taney called slavery “a blot on our national character” and thought that “every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will…be gradually wiped away.” Taney hoped that with an appeal to the “language of the Declaration of Independence, every friend of humanity will seek to lighten the galling chain of slavery.” He seemed to hold relatively enlightened views about slavery and race, and believed in justice based upon the rule of law and American principles.
In the 1830s, Taney joined the Democratic Party, and, after serving as the Maryland Attorney General, was appointed U.S. Attorney General under President Andrew Jackson. He became an advocate of states’ sovereignty and reversed his earlier stance on the rights of slaves and the immorality of slavery. Attorney General Taney offered the president an opinion on a case dealing with forcing free blacks into slavery in South Carolina. He defended the right of states to enforce their own laws and asserted in an 1832 opinion that, “The African race in the United States even when free are everywhere a degraded class, and exercise no political influence.” He went on, “They were not looked upon as citizens by the contracting parties who formed the Constitution,” and were “not supposed to be included by the term citizens.” It was an ominous declaration when Taney replaced the deceased John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in March 1836.
Over the next decade, the furor over slavery dominated national politics, though Taney scrupulously avoided public comment as the impartial Chief Justice. But, on the bench, Taney reversed his earlier moral stance on the evils of slavery and its contradiction with the ideal of the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, he did not just want to leave the issue to the states, as was constitutionally correct, but his vision increasingly became one that excluded African Americans, free or slave, from some share in the American republic.
Taney increasingly sided with southerners and such politicians as Stephen Douglas who adopted a morally relative view of slavery and sought to block congressional authority over slavery in the territories despite clear constitutional authority and historical precedents such as the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850. Meanwhile, Taney privately expressed his political opinion that, “The South is doomed, and that nothing but a firm united action, nearly unanimous is every state can check Northern insult and Northern aggression.” He in effect supported a Union in which one race was kept in an inferior position and critics of slavery were effectively silenced. Thus, when the attorneys reargued the Dred Scott case in the Supreme Court chambers in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Taney listened with these thoughts in mind.
In the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) case, Taney wrote the majority opinion, holding that blacks, free or slave, were not considered citizens (despite much evidence to the contrary) at the time of the founding and could never be citizens. In addition, in a sweeping use of judicial fiat, he declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional. Taney intended for the case to settle the fierce sectionalism that was dividing the Union and pushing it toward secession and Civil War, but the decision only inflamed sectional tensions further.
Taney’s view on slavery and federal power helped shape President Abraham Lincoln’s executive actions on slavery during the Civil War. Most notably, Lincoln crafted the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure in which he could free the slaves in states then in rebellion against the United States. Lincoln knew that that executive authority would expire at the end of the war and that Taney would reverse much of the freedom that African Americans had won. However, the Thirteenth Amendment forever banned slavery from the United States and made the question academic. To some degree, so did the death of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in late 1864.
Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and the author of five books including Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.