Roger Brooke Taney was born March 17, 1777. He was the third child and the second son of seven (four sons and three daughters) born to a slaveholding family of Roman Catholic tobacco planters in Calvert County, Maryland.
|Taney's Birthplace and Boyhood Home|
As a younger son with no prospect of inheriting the family plantation, Taney chose the profession of law.
He was 84 years old when the Civil War began, and died 3 years later, before it ended.
|Taney as a young man|
He studied law in Annapolis, Maryland and in 1799 was admitted to the bar. He quickly distinguished himself as one of Maryland's most promising young lawyers. In 1799, the same year he began practicing as an attorney, Taney was elected to the Maryland state legislature, where he served one term as a Federalist.
Taney was Roman Catholic; Anne was Episcopalian. They reconciled religious differences by agreeing that sons would be raised as Catholics, daughters as Episcopalians. The Taneys had six daughters, Anne (born in 1809), Elizabeth (born in 1811), Ellen (born in 1814), Sophia (born in 1818), Maria (born in 1819) and Alice (born in 1828). Their only son died in infancy.
|Taney home in Frederick, Maryland|
Taney manumitted seven of his own slaves in 1818 and another in 1821. He emancipated two more slaves, who he had inherited from his father, while practicing law in Frederick. In 1819, he defended a Methodist minister, Reverend Jacob Grubner, who had been indicted for inciting slave insurrections by denouncing slavery in a camp meeting. Taney referred to slaveholders as “those reptiles who live by trading in human flesh and enrich themselves by tearing the husband from the wife and the infant from the mother’s bosom.” He concluded by adding: “A hard necessity, indeed compels us to endure the evils of slavery for a time. It was imposed upon us by another nation while we were yet in a state of colonial vassalage. It cannot be easily and suddenly removed. Yet, while it continues, it is a blot on our national character; and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away.” When his brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key, assisted in founding the American Colonization Society, Roger Taney became a local officer of that Society and later a vice president.
Unlike Marshall, who had supported a broad role for the federal government in the area of economic regulation, Taney and the other justices appointed by Jackson more often favored the power of the states. The Taney Court also presided over the case of slaves who had taken over the Spanish schooner Amistad. Fellow Justice Joseph Story wrote the Court's decision and opinion. Taney sided with Story's opinion but left no written record of his own in regard to the case.
In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, the operators of the Charles River Bridge in Boston sued the operators of a new competing bridge, claiming that the state had granted them a monopoly to collect tolls. Taney argued that, although the Massachusetts legislature had granted the Charles River Bridge a charter to build a bridge, the object of the government was to promote general happiness, which took precedence over the rights of monopolies.
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the Taney Court agreed to hear a case regarding slavery, slaves, slave owners, and States' Rights. It held that the Constitutional prohibition against state laws that would emancipate any "person held to service or labor in [another] state" barred Pennsylvania from punishing a Maryland man who had seized a former slave and her child, and had taken them back to Maryland without seeking an order from the Pennsylvania courts permitting the abduction. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Joseph Story held not only that states were barred from interfering with enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws, but that they also were barred from assisting in enforcing those laws.
Anne Key Taney died in Baltimore on September 29, 1855, from complications of a stroke which had left her paralyzed. She was buried at Saint Johns Catholic Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland. The Taneys' youngest daughter, Alice, died the next day from yellow fever.
had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that
it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . .
Taney declared Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional (see Ex parte Merryman). Merryman was indicted by the grand jury of a United States District Court for burning bridges and destroying telegraph wires. While Merryman was in jail awaiting a hearing, Taney had furniture and home-cooked meals brought to him in his cell. Merryman later named one of his sons Roger B. Taney Merryman in the Chief Justice's honor.
Taney, sitting as a federal circuit court judge, ruled that the authority to suspend habeas corpus lay with Congress, not the president. President LIncoln ignored the ruling, as did the Army under Lincoln's orders. The case was rendered moot by Lincoln's subsequent order in February 1862 to release almost everyone held as a political prisoner. In response to opposition to conscription, however, Lincoln again suspended habeas corpus six months later, this time throughout the entire country. The passage of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act in March 1863 ended the controversy, at least temporarily, by authorizing the suspension of habeas corpus upon Congress's authority rather than on the president's authority.
Taney, whose health had never been good, spent his final years in worsening health, near poverty, and despised by both North and South. Since the Merryman ruling, he was all but ignored by Lincoln and his cabinet.
Taney lost his Maryland estates to the Civil War and suffered from his poverty: "All my life I have felt the obligation to pay my debts . . . and my inability to do so at this time is mortifying." He explained that his Washington, D.C. rent had been raised from $4,000 to $8,000, but that he had been prevented from moving to cheaper quarters due to the failing health of his daughter Ellen, who lived with him. The miserable financial situation was maddening to him. . . . A few months later Taney wrote ". . . about peaceful, bygone days . . . walks in the fresh country air. But my walking days are over." (Note: Taney's yearly salary was approximately $10,000. In the inflationary Washington, D.C. of this time, the yearly rent for his boardinghouse rooms had jumped from $4,000 to $8,000, with no increase in pay.)
On October 13, 1864 the clerk of the Supreme Court announced that "the great and good Chief Justice is no more." He had died at the age of eighty-seven the previous evening, having served for more than twenty-eight years as the fifth Chief Justice of the United States.
President Lincoln made no public statement. Of his cabinet, Lincoln and three members —Secretary of State William Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Postmaster General William Dennison — attended Taney's memorial service in Washington, D.C. Only Bates joined the cortège to Frederick, Maryland for Taney's funeral and burial at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery.
In early 1865, the House of Representatives passed a bill to appropriate funds for a bust of Taney to be displayed in the Supreme Court alongside with those of the four Chief Justices who preceded him. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said: "I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also. . . . Now an emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision? . . . If a man has done evil in his life, he must not be complimented in marble." He proposed that a vacant spot, not a bust of Taney, be left in the courtroom "to speak in warning to all who would betray liberty!"
After Taney's successor, Chief Justice Salmon Chase, died, in 1873 Congress approved funds for busts of both Taney and Chase to be displayed in the Capitol alongside the other chief justices.