This reactionary-looking fellow is Marylander Roger Brooks Taney, a Jackson appointee to the Supreme Court. Justice Taney is best remembered for his dreadful ruling Scott V Sandford in 1857.
Taney had consistently telegraphed his views on slavery by repeatedly insisting that blacks had no rights white people were bound to respect. Before his appointment to the bench, a free black had requested documents for overseas travel that Roger Taney as Attorney General disregarded quickly. He reiterated his position that blacks were not citizens, nor ever could be, and the request was denied.
Another important event in this story concerns the Missouri Compromise, passed much earlier in 1820. This legislation had directed that, except for the new state of Missouri, slavery could only exist south of Missouri, ostensibly to the Pacific Ocean. Most Americans hoped that this Missouri Compromise Line would hold forever, clearly defining in perpetuity, slave from free territory. However, time and Roger Taney soon made that a forlorn hope.
By the time the Scott case reached the Federal docket, violence and blood had burned across the Kansas prairie. Kansas settlers were slated to vote upon the fate of slavery in their state constitution, but invading pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians attacked Free-state Jayhawkers sparking a mini Civil War across the region. Unrepentant slaveholders demanded their 5th Amendment property rights, meaning their slaves were allowed in any region in the country. At the same time, equally fervent opponents of slavery contended the “peculiar institution” would remain 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, and silence those meddling, self righteous Yankees. When the Court issued its ruling in 1857, Justice Taney’s opinion rang out with authority, clarity, 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 crisis, Justice Taney had, in fact, only stoked a far more massive fire.
Indeed war erupted within four years of Taney’s decision, blazing 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 food 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 the 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.