By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007
It is perhaps surprising that Dred Scott Madison II and J. Charles Taney should agree.
After all, Madison's great-great-grandfather was a slave who went to court to sue for his freedom. And Taney's great-great-uncle was the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the opinion refusing to release that slave and ruling that black men held no rights in the United States.
Yet as activists urge Maryland officials to remove bronze images of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from the State House in Annapolis and Frederick City Hall this year -- the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision -- Taney and Madison have found a measure of agreement.
"If we want to get into the business of taking down statues of founding fathers who were flawed, we're going to have to get to a lot of people," Taney, 60, said in an interview from his home in Connecticut. "All of the men of the South -- Jefferson, Washington -- all were flawed in this regard."
From his home in Texas, Madison, 48, agreed. "Someone's statue? If you move it, where do you end? Do you go down South and start removing all of the statues of Confederate officers? It's part of American history. You can't hide it."
Roger Taney, one of Maryland's most prominent sons, served on the nation's highest court for 28 years. He is remembered best for the Dred Scott case, which helped propel a divided nation into war. For that reason, parallel and growing movements in Frederick and Prince George's County seek to have the prominent images of Taney moved to museums, where he could be remembered but not celebrated.
The Taney tributes have drawn complaints before, but activists hope they might find success this year, given the anniversary and the new and seemingly national willingness to reevaluate the harms of slavery. This year, Maryland joined a half-dozen states that passed resolutions expressing regret for the practice.
"He essentially wrote the decision that created a caste system in this country," said Terry L. Speigner, chairman of the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee. "It's time for the statue to go."
But Taney has his defenders, who argue that the man has a complex legacy that makes it difficult to judge a long life entirely through a modern prism. His great-great-nephew says that although Taney's memory is marred by the Dred Scott ruling, he is nevertheless worthy of recognition for other contributions.
Even Madison, who called the Supreme Court justice a "bitter, pro-slavery individual," said that ultimately he does not care what is done with the statues. But he said it makes little sense to put Taney's statue in the same category as the Confederate flag, with all its weighty symbolism. Moving the statues, he added, might suggest that blame for slavery can be pinned on one man, rather than accepting the harder truth that Taney's views were widespread in his time.
The Prince George's efforts to move the 1872 Annapolis statue are being spearheaded by the activist group Progressive Cheverly and Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George's). The NAACP in Frederick and a lawyer are leading a separate movement to remove a 1931 bust of Taney from the front of City Hall.
"To have someone like that in front of the City Hall that belongs to all the people? I have yet to find someone who tells me that's a good thing," said Guy Djoken, president of the Frederick County NAACP.
A large statue of Taney also graces central Baltimore. And there is a Taneytown in Carroll County, although the town Web site notes that it was named for town settler Raphael and not his famous distant relative.
Roger Taney was born in Calvert County and spent 22 years as a lawyer in Frederick before he was tapped in 1831 to serve as President Andrew Jackson's attorney general. He was elevated to the court in 1836, where he remained until his death in 1864 on the very day Maryland abolished slavery.
In the Scott case, Taney ruled that black men were not citizens and therefore held none of the rights of free men, including the right to use federal courts.
In one of the ruling's most often quoted passages, Taney remarked that, for the Constitution's framers, black people were "regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
This year alone, Taney's ruling has been blasted by scholars including the dean of Harvard Law School and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
"It was a profoundly disturbing decision that literally ripped a nation in half," said Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, who noted that his school removed a painting of Taney from its library in 1992. "It's no surprise that some of the current thinking is that it is not only inappropriate to celebrate him but that any recognition of Taney as anything other than a blight on the federal judiciary is unacceptable."
But other Taney rulings during his long span on the court helped craft the underpinnings of modern American jurisprudence, particularly in banking and contract law. Some historians note that he also freed the slaves who worked his tobacco plantation well before the Civil War.
"I'm not trying to rewrite history, but I do say look at the career and the man with a certain degree of context and balance," said Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist. "There are very significant achievements to pay attention to, along with his failings."
Papenfuse serves as secretary of the State House Trust, the group that makes decisions about monuments on the capitol's grounds. Its voting members include Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and a representative of the Maryland Historical Trust.
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese would say only that the governor has received an inquiry about the statue and referred it to the State House Trust for consideration. However, Abbruzzese said the cost of removing the statue, estimated by Papenfuse to be $100,000, might be tough to find in a year when state lawmakers will be looking to close a budget deficit.
Miller said he supported a compromise struck in the early 1990s, when detractors last suggested Taney's image be removed. Instead of uprooting Taney, the state erected a large and better-marked statue of the first black person appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall's statue sits in the middle of a broad plaza on the back side of the State House, which today is far better traveled than Taney's ceremonial front entrance.
"I don't believe in excising history," Miller said. "You move on, adapt and adjust."