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Removing a slavery defender’s statue: Roger B. Taney wrote one of Supreme Court’s worst rulings

Roger Brooke Taney, the Supreme Court justice who penned the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision. (Library of Congress.)
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As the country wrestles with removing Confederate memorials and statues from Charlottesville to Durham, N.C., another slavery defender’s legacy has come under fire: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney.

Shortly after midnight Friday, workers removed a 145-year-old statue of Taney outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he decided Taney had to go after the violence in Charlottesville, where white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The governor’s action came two days after Confederate memorials to Taney, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were quietly removed in Baltimore.

Lee and Jackson are still renowned more than a century after their deaths. But who is Taney?

The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job

On March 6, 1857, Taney penned the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott case. Critics would later declare the 7-to-2  ruling, which declared that black people could not be U.S. citizens, as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history.

One hundred-sixty years after the ruling, Hogan acknowledged that Taney was a slavery defender and said that “the time has come to make clear the difference between properly acknowledging our past and glorifying the darkest chapters of our history.”

Taney’s ruling in the case of Dred Scott, a black man born into slavery who used the courts to demand his freedom, was a pivotal turning point in the country’s history.

Scott was born in Virginia around the year 1799 and was considered the property of Peter Blow. In 1830, Scott moved to St. Louis with the Blow family but was soon sold to John Emerson, an Army surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks.

In 1834, Scott and Emerson left the slave state of Missouri to travel to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin — where slavery had been prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this period, according to an account of his life by the National Park Service, Scott married Harriet Robinson, an enslaved woman, at Fort Snelling, which was part of the Wisconsin territory at the time but is now in Minnesota. They had two children, Eliza and Lizzie.

In 1842, Scott, his wife, their children and the Emersons returned to St. Louis. John Emerson died in 1843. After his death, his wife, Irene, hired out Scott, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie to work on other plantations.

It is unclear what prompted Dred and Harriet Scott to act when they did. But on April 6, 1846, they filed suit against Irene Emerson, seeking their freedom.

Dred Scott was about 50 years old at the time, the Park Service said.

Scott argued in the lawsuit that because he had spent time in a free state and a free territory, he should be granted his freedom. Legal precedent in Missouri held that “once free, always free,” he argued.

The case went before a jury, which found in favor of Scott. However, the brother of Emerson’s widow — J.F.A. Sanford — appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decision. Scott’s attorney filed suit in federal court. The case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856. Because of a misspelling of Sanford’s name, the case was included in the court’s docket as Scott v. Sandford.

The issue to be decided was whether Scott, who had spent time in a free state and free territory, should remain enslaved or be set free.

“The question is simply this,” Chief Justice Taney wrote. “Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges and immunities, guaranteed by the instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.”

Taney declared that despite the fact that some states had given black people citizenship, black people were not and could never be citizens of the United States.

When the Constitution was ratified, Taney stated, 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 inferior, that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit.”

Because Scott “was not a U.S. citizen,” Taney wrote, Scott “had no standing” to sue in federal court. Taney declared that free “Negroes,” even those who had been allowed to vote in states, could never be citizens of the United States. He ruled that black people were not intended to be included in the word “citizens” in the Constitution and could thus claim no rights and privileges of citizenship.

The decision, which legal scholars said was bound by tortured logic, also declared unconstitutional the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had declared free all territories west of Missouri and north of the 36/30 latitude.

Taney’s ruling thrust the country closer to civil war. And the ruling would forever taint the legacy of Taney, the fifth chief justice of the United States, who had been appointed in 1836 by President Andrew Jackson.

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Taney had been born March 17, 1777, in Maryland’s Calvert County, where his family owned a tobacco farm and slaves. Those who knew him often described him as gaunt and sickly. In official portraits, his narrow eyes are shaded by bushy eyebrow. His lips are thin and pursed, his skin sallow, his face severe. He was the first Roman Catholic justice to serve on the Supreme Court. He served as a justice until his death in 1864 at the age of 87 as the Civil War was raging.

The criticism of Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case came fast and furious. Critics attacked the logic of the decision and declared the ruling had wrought irrevocable damage on the reputation of the Supreme Court.

A statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision was removed from the Maryland State House on Aug. 18. (Video: Facebook/Jolene Ivey)

Abraham Lincoln, who was administered the presidential oath of office by Taney on March 4, 1861, called the decision “erroneous.”

Charles Evans Hughes, who would later become the 11th chief justice of the United States, said that with the ruling, the Supreme Court had “suffered from a self-inflicted wound.”

Hughes called the ruling “a public calamity” that would undermine “confidence in the Court. It was many years before the Court, even under new judges, was able to retrieve its reputation.”

In February 1865, when Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a bill to render a marble bust of Taney in the Supreme Court, a heated debate erupted in the Senate chambers, according to U.S. Senate historical records.

Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts shouted: “I object to that; that now an emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision.”

According to Senate history, “While Trumbull eulogized the late chief justice, noting that even if Taney had made a wrong decision he was still a great and learned man, Sumner retorted: ‘Let me tell that Senator that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgement is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.’”

Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts supported Sumner’s criticism, saying that to honor Taney with a bust would be a crime, according to the book “Lincoln’s Supreme Court” by David Mayer Silver.

Wilson described Taney as a man who did more to pull the country into “this bloody revolution” than any other. Wilson asked the Senate how it could spend $1,000 on a bust depicting Taney when troops “are fighting, bleeding, dying to defend their country, menaced by armed treason born of the Dred Scott decision.”

Wilson criticized Taney: “He sank into his grave without giving a cheering word or a helping hand to the country he had vainly sought to place forever by judicial authority under the iron rule of slave masters.”

After the debate, action on the bill was postponed.

It would take almost another decade — on Jan. 29, 1874 — before a congressional resolution was passed by a joint committee to procure a bust of Taney. The bust, created by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was placed in the Supreme Court Chamber in 1877.

This story has been updated.

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