Such a move is long overdue, and the Senate will hopefully concur in coming days. In fact, erecting the statue of Taney was so controversial that the Senate initially failed to appropriate money for the bust, thanks to many of the same arguments about slavery, racism and historical memory that we are rehashing 156 years later.
In early 1865, a bill to commission a marble bust of the recently deceased Taney for the Supreme Court chambers (then in the Capitol basement, near where the bust sits today) like those of his four predecessors passed the House almost without notice.
But when the Senate considered it — just a few weeks after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery went out to the states for ratification — irate and impassioned abolitionist senators defeated the appropriation. Commissioning this bust, they insisted, was wholly incongruous with the racial reckoning then taking place as the nation fought for abolition and looked toward a Reconstruction process that might guarantee equal rights.
In rebuking the proposed thousand-dollar bust, four abolitionist senators argued that a nation imagining, or reimagining, itself as being dedicated to liberty and equality owed neither “eulogies … nor statues” to “the memory of [slavery’s] apologists or champions.” “If a man,” famed Massachusetts radical Charles Sumner asserted, “has done evil during his life he must not be complimented in marble.” Instead Sumner demanded “the name of Taney … be hooted down the page of history.”
Even at that early date, these radical Republicans perceived that whatever else he had done, Taney would, inevitably “be known to posterity” and “to the world by the Dred Scott decision.” As Henry Wilson, who would later become vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, articulated, it was deceptive and damaging “to forget the great crime, the crime of our history, to comply with a customary usage.”
Reflecting how reviled Taney was by those most committed to the abolition cause, Benjamin Wade wryly suggested his Ohio constituents “would pay $2,000 to hang this man in effigy rather than $1,000 for a bust to commemorate his merits.” Sumner, however, offered a more realistic but ultimately ignored alternative use for congressional commemorative largesse: “If you have money to appropriate in this way, let it be in honor of the defenders of liberty.”
Whether because of these powerful arguments, or because they wished to avoid a fight that would split their party, more conservative Republicans lost their appetite for the Taney bust while taking a dinner break, and the measure was quietly dropped. The radicals’ vision of acknowledging the horrors of the past to begin atoning for them carried the day as the Civil War reached its concluding stages.
Nine years later, however, with far less fanfare, a new bill for marble busts of both Taney and his recently deceased successor Salmon Chase, slipped through the Senate while Sumner lay ill in the final months of his life. The calm acquiescence in 1874 of every Republican senator but Sumner reflected the changed mood of the country.
Exhausted by the battles and cost of enforcing Reconstruction, White Americans, North and South, craved reconciliation — even at the expense of racial justice. They wanted to move beyond fights over slavery and equality. The vote on Taney’s bust foreshadowed the collapse of Reconstruction governments across the South by 1877, as the federal government declined to intervene in their defense. Left to their own devices, by the dawn of the 20th century, White Southerners had imposed Jim Crow segregation across the South, complete with disfranchisement, economic exploitation and brutal anti-Black violence.
Today, many are redeploying the arguments used by the radical Republicans in 1865 to argue for removing the Taney bust. In a modern twist on Sumner's proposal, they want to replace it with a bust of Taney's fellow Marylander Thurgood Marshall, the 20th century’s greatest civil rights lawyer and the first African American Supreme Court Justice (serving 1967-1991).
Yet, the proposal garnered far from unanimous support in the House, with 120 Republicans voting against it, and only 67 in favor. Even some who voted for the proposal, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, seemingly did so more as an exercise in partisan point scoring than as a chance to right a past wrong. McCarthy emphasized the fact that Taney and other slavery defenders in the 1860s were Democrats (which ignores how the two parties evolved after the mid-1960s on race).
McCarthy also claimed rejecting the racism embodied by Taney also required attacking what he calls “Critical Race Theory,” by which McCarthy and many Republican colleagues appear to mean not only that specific legal theory but perhaps also any call to address systemic legacies of our nation’s history of racial inequality. McCarthy and his allies seem to charge that acknowledging persistent impacts of past racial injustices is divisive and harmful.
Yet, removing the Taney bust is not a sign, as McCarthy implies, that we have reached an endpoint of colorblind harmony, equity and historical consensus. Instead, it is a simple, but welcome, step toward a more candid national assessment of the historical tensions between freedom and slavery and equality and injustice that have enabled a bust of one of our most infamous judges to remain in the Capitol for almost a century and a half. The fact that Taney’s legacy was so fiercely debated mere months after his death has mostly been forgotten. But it is a reminder of the import of accurate historical memory, and understanding our past to improve our future.