Sunday, March 17, 2013

Roger Taney, born March 17, 1777

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
He received a rudimentary education from a series of private tutors. After instructing him for a year, his last tutor David English recommended that Taney was ready for college. At the age of 15 he entered  Dickinson College, graduating with honors in 1795. 

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 married Anne Phebe Charlton Key, sister of  Francis Scott Key, on January 7, 1806. They had seven children together.  Francis Scott Key had been a fellow law student with Taney.  Taney lived and practiced law with Francis Scott Key in Frederick, Maryland.  Key later wrote "The Star Spangled Banner".

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 served as a director of the State Bank Branch in Frederick, Maryland from 1810 to 1815. He was elected a state Senator in 1816, serving until 1821 - this time as a Democrat, because the Federalist party had dissolved. He was also a director of the Frederick County Bank from 1818 to 1823, when he returned to private practice. 

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.

When the 1824 presidential election divided the Democratic Party between supporters and opponents of Andrew Jackson, Taney became a staunch Jacksonian Democrat. He was elected Attorney General of Maryland in 1827, but resigned in 1831, first to serve as acting United States Secretary of War, and then to accept President Jackson's nomination as Attorney General of the United States.

Among Taney's opinions as attorney general, two revealed his stand on slavery and race: one supported South Carolina's law prohibiting free Blacks from entering the state, and one argued that Blacks could not be citizens. 

In January 1835, President Jackson nominated Taney as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  The Senate was scheduled to vote on Taney's confirmation on the closing day of the session that month, but the anti-Jackson Whigs who dominated the Senate blocked the vote and introduced a motion to abolish the open seat on the Court. The latter was unsuccessful, but the Whigs succeeded in preventing Taney's confirmation to the Court. (The seat was then left open for over a year until Phillip Pendleton Barbour was confirmed to it in 1836.)

Andrew Jackson
Two factors intervened to help Taney onto the Court, however: after the 1834 elections, Jacksonian Democrats controlled the Senate and, during the 1835 recess, Chief Justice John Marshall died following a stage coach accident. On December 28, 1835, Jackson sent the nomination of Taney as Chief Justice to the Senate, which had convened that month; after a long and bitter battle with considerable opposition from Whig leaders Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and and Jackson's former Vice President John C. Calhoun, Taney was confirmed on March 15, 1836 and received his commission the same day.

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.

Dred Scott
In 1857, the Court heard Dred Scott v. Sandford; its decision is considered to have indirectly been a cause of the Civil War. Despite the willingness of five members of the Court to dismiss the lawsuit by Dred Scott, on grounds situated in Missouri law governing who could sue and be sued, Taney wrote what became regarded as the opinion for the Court. His decision presented his version of the origins of the United States and the Constitution as the basis for his holding that Congress had no authority to restrict the spread of slavery into federal territories, and that such previous attempts to restrict slavery's spread as the 1820 Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional.

The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks 
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. . . .
The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision was widely condemned at the time by opponents of slavery as an illegitimate use of judicial power. Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party accused the Taney Court of carrying out the orders of the "slave power" and of conspiring with President James Buchanan to undo the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Buchanan put significant political pressure behind the scenes on Justice Robert Grier to obtain at least one vote from a justice from outside the South to support the Court's sweeping decision.

Taney's intemperate language only added to the fury of those who opposed the decision. As he explained the Court's ruling, he noted that African Americans, free or slave, had not been considered part of the original community of people covered by the Constitution, but people of "an inferior order". Because they were originally excluded, he contended that neither the Court nor Congress could now extend rights of citizens to them.
One of the two dissenters, Justice Benjamin Curtis, was so upset by the decision that he resigned from the court.
Taney labeled the opposition to slavery as "northern aggression," a popular phrase among Southerners. He hoped that a Supreme Court decision declaring federal restrictions on slavery in the territories unconstitutional would put the issue beyond the realm of political debate. His decision galvanized Northern opposition to slavery while splitting the Democratic Party on sectional lines.
Many abolitionists — and some supporters of slavery — believed that Taney was prepared to rule that the states had no power to bar slaveholders from bringing their property into free states, and that laws of free states providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory were unconstitutional. A case, Lemmon v. New York, that presented that issue was slowly making its way to the Supreme Court in the years after the Dred Scott decision. The outbreak of the American Civil War denied Taney the chance to rule on the issue, as the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded and no longer recognized the Court's authority.
Lincoln's Inauguration
Taney personally administered the oath of office to Lincoln, his most prominent critic, on March 4, 1861.

John Merryman
Taney was instrumental in the case of John Merryman, a citizen of the state of Maryland who, in May 1861, was accused of burning bridges and destroying telegraph poles. He was seized in his home at 2:00 am by military authorities and taken to Fort McHenry. His was the first arrest under President Abraham Lincoln's suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.

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 cort├Ęge to Frederick, Maryland for Taney's funeral and burial at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery.
Taney Tombstone
Taney, whose wife had pre-deceased him by nearly twenty years, was survived by two daughters: the sickly Ellen, and a second, widowed daughter with a small child; he left a small life insurance policy and a bundle of worthless Virginia bonds.

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.
Taney Bust in Capitol
The bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was executed by the noted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  

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