Back to top

Roger Taney (Great Southerners)

Reference

Will T. Hale, Great Southerners: Being A Series of Short Sketches of Statesmen, Military Captains, Orators, Jurists, Preachers, Men of Literature, Etc (Nashville, TN: Barbee & Smith, Agents, 1900), 1: 130-134.

Two of the most noted chief justices of the United States have been from the South: John Marshall and Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawney). Both had experience in statesmanship also.

Taney was born in Maryland, and was a brother- in-law of Francis Scott Key, author of the national song, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His acuteness and eloquence soon placed him amoung the foremost lawyers of his State. He had political ambitions, but became somewhat unpopular on account of defending Gen. James Wilkinson before a court-martial. Gen. Wilkinson, who had been a soldier under Washington, becoming intimate with Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr during the time, had undertaken the betrayal of his country to Spain by trying to induce the pioneers of Kentucky and the western territory of North Carolina to become alienated from the colonies and attach themselves to Spain. Later on, he was thought to be connected with Burr in his scheme to erect a southwestern empire. Through an idea that Gen. Wilkinson was unjustly charged, Taney was induced to defend the officer, sharing the odium that attached to the latter, and refusing to take a fee. Eight years afterwards, he again defied the disapprobation of his neighbors by courageously appearing in defense of Jacob Gruber, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania who had in a camp meeting condemned slavery in bitter language, and who was indicted as an inciter of insurrection among the negroes. In view of an expression afterwards used by Taney in the famous Dred Scott decision, it is interesting to note that in his opening argument for Gruber he declared of slavery that “while it continues it is a blot on our national character.”

Taney was a great friend of Andrew Jackson, becoming the latter’s most trusted counselor, and encouraged the President in his war on the United States Bank. This made him unpopular with Jackson’s political enemies, and when he was appointed Secretary of State the hostile majority rejected the appointment, it being the first time that the President’s selection of a cabinet officer had not been confirmed.

After the death of John Marshall, Taney was nominated to be Chief Justice of the United States, and though Henry Clay was active in denouncing the appointment, it was confirmed by a vote of twenty-nine against fifteen. Two of America’s greatest law writers (Joseph Story and Jame Kent) were on the bench with him, and often dissented from his opinions. The truth is, Taney believed in State rights, while Marshall was inclined against the doctrine, and that fact is one of the reasons the latter has always been more popular with the North, and not because he was a great jurist.

From 1854 till his death Judge Taney was called upon to decide cases that affected not only individuals, but sections of the Union. In that year, in the midst of the excitement that attended the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill and strife of the slaveholders and free-soilers, he was confronted by the famous Dred Scott case. It involved the question: Could Congress exclude slavery in the Territories? After being twice argued, the case was decided in 1857. The opinion of the court was written by the Chief Justice. He held that Dred Scott, a slave, was debarred from seeking a remedy in the United States Court of Missouri, as he was not a citizen of that State, and, being a slave, could not become a citizen by act of any State or of the United States. In the opinion this dictum was made, which set the abolitionists to harping more than ever: “They [the negroes] had for more than a century before been 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 which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” As a consequence, the decision - containing a proposition that we must look on to-day as an extreme one – produced a strong reaction in favor of the antislavery party. William H. Seward, in the Senate, made a direct attack on the Supreme Court.

In 1858 a second “slave case” was presented and as all these assisted materially in hastening the civil war, it is necessarily of interest as history as well as a pointer to a great man’s way of reasoning. Sherman M. Booth, who had been sentenced by the United States District Court for aiding in the escape of a negro from slavery, was released by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, which refused to notice the subsequent mandates of the Supreme Court of the United States relative to the affair.

This was bordering on the doctrine of nullification, which appeared odious in South Carolina a quarter of a century before. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the Court of Wisconsin, declaring the fugitive slave law constitutional – that it was the law of the land; whereupon Wisconsin’s Legislature placed that State side by side with South Carolina as to nullification. It declared that the States, as parties to a compact, have an equal right to determine infractions of their rights and the mode of their redress, and that the judgment of the Federal Court was “void and of no force.”

Chief Justice Taney died on the day on which Maryland abolished slavery.
How to Cite This Page: "Roger Taney (Great Southerners)," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/14175.