This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, an Andrew Jackson appointee to the Supreme Court. History remembers Justice Taney as the author of the Court’s most infamous ruling in Scott V Sandford (1857).
Taney had frequently telegraphed his views on slavery and American citizenship, insisting that blacks had no rights white men were bound to respect. Even before his nomination to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney, as then US Attorney General, instantly rejected. Taney conceded his legal views long before dawning judicial robes; blacks were not citizens, and never could be. Travel documents for this man of color were denied.
Another important element in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Settled eight years prior to the Jackson Administration, this legislation directed that with the exception of the new state itself, slavery would be forbidden above Missouri’s southern border. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would endure forever, clearly delineating for posterity new slave states from free.
However, with westward migration and the advent of Roger Taney, that hope flickered and died, speeding up the advent of Civil War.
By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and bloodshed had erupted west of Missouri, out on the Kansas prairie. Emigrants recently arrived from northern and southern states, were to vote upon the fate of slavery in the new state’s constitution. A volatile mix of invading, pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-State Jayhawkers near Lawrence, sparking deadly violence across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights (meaning slaves) were allowed any place slaveholders settled. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain contained where it existed, never to pollute new territories, or America’s future.
Justice Taney took umbrage at these incessant attacks on slavery, and at those Northern rabble rousers who would not respect the law. When the Scott case entered deliberations it appears Taney intended to settle the question for all time, silencing forever those interfering, and self-righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, and finality.
- Despite Dred Scott residing in free territory for a time, he was still a slave.
- As a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen and had no standing in court.
With those two main points established, Taney could have stopped, but the Chief Justice had some venom to add.
3) Congress had exceeded its authority in legislating the Missouri Compromise in 1820, rendering it unconstitutional. Slavery could not be restricted by boundary lines or by popular vote. Property was protected by law.
Believing he had settled the dispute, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a more massive inferno.
Indeed war exploded within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing on for another bloody four years. In the aftermath, in an interesting turn of symmetry, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, reversed all of Taney’s arguments, provision by provision.
- By virtue of birth in the United States, one was a citizen.
- As a citizen a person was due all rights and immunities, with equal protection under the law.
This amendment reads as if the Scott Decision acted as a template for reversal.
Fast forward to 2008.
In a conscious effort to mirror the events of fellow Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural, Barack Obama’s installation as chief executive deliberately followed the 1861 sequence. The Obamas rode the same train route, breakfasted on the same meal inauguration day, and when the moment came for the swearing in, President Obama selected the same Bible as touched by Abraham Lincoln’s right hand.
In a last twist of symmetry that Bible belonged to Justice Roger B Taney.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle. Hard copies can be ordered at http://www.river-of-january.com.