Roger Taney (Dickinson Chronicles)

John Osborne and James W. Gerencser, eds., “Roger Brooke Taney,” Dickinson Chronicles,
Roger Brooke Taney was born March 17, 1777 on the Taney Plantation along the Patuxent River, in Maryland's Calvert County. The Taney family had come to the colony as indentured servants in the mid-seventeenth century but, after serving out their term of servitude, they later established themselves as prosperous tobacco farmers in the rich agrarian economy of southern Maryland. Taney grew up as a Maryland Roman Catholic with rural gentry privilege, was educated privately and then entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1792.

While at Dickinson, Taney came under the tutelage of Dr. Charles Nisbet, arguably one of the greatest educators of his day. If the correspondence between Nisbet and Taney’s father throughout 1792-1795 are any indication, the Principal became almost a surrogate father to the young and talented student. Taney was a leading member of the Belles Lettres Society and graduated as valedictorian of the twenty-four students in the class of 1795. This honor he always valued since the students themselves at the time were responsible for such selection.

Taney studied law under Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase in Annapolis before being admitted to the Maryland bar on June 19, 1799. After a brief time as a Federalist state representative, he began his legal career in earnest in Frederick, Maryland. There he also met and married Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, the sister of Francis Scott Key, in January, 1806. The couple would have six daughters.

Taney was elected to the Maryland State Senate in 1816 and came to dominate the state's Federalists. By 1820 he had also established himself as one of the leading attorneys in Maryland and in September, 1827 accepted the position of State Attorney General. As the Federalist Party faded away, Taney looked for other political outlets. He had always been an avid supporter and admirer of General Andrew Jackson, acting as chairman of the Jackson Central Committee of Maryland in the 1828 election. His longtime support was recognized in 1831 when President Jackson appointed him to the first of what were to be several posts in his cabinet. He initially served as both Attorney-General and acting Secretary of War. In a cabinet shuffle in 1833, Jackson appointed Taney as Secretary of the Treasury. The national controversy over the role of the Bank of the United States dictated that this was a highly sensitive post, but one for which Taney’s long experience in banking law qualified him well. Taney would serve from September 23, 1833 until his Senate confirmation was rejected and he resigned on June 24, 1834. Jackson then sought to have him appointed to the Supreme Court as an associate justice but this nomination was also blocked in the Senate. Jackson persisted, however, and on December 28, 1835, he nominated Taney to fill the vacancy on the Court left by the death of the legendary Chief Justice John Marshall. This time, despite the usual Whig opposition, he was confirmed and he took the oath of office on March 28, 1836.

Taney’s actions in his first decades largely calmed initial Whig fears that his appointment would politicize the Court and he settled into a careful career marked by strict construction of, not only the Constitution where it supported state sovereignty, but also of contract, as in Charles River Bridge vs. Warren Bridge. However, one case in particular has been the hallmark of Taney's tenure as Chief Justice. In 1856, a seemingly unnecessary supporting case for the 1820 Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott vs Sandford, was allowed before the Court. Taney wrote the majority opinion in the Scott case, confirming slaves as property by ruling against Negro citizenship and then declaring that the Compromise itself was unconstitutional because Congress had no right, under the constitutional protection of private property, to bar slavery from new territories.

As a child of Southern gentry, Taney immediately came under extreme Republican attack for this decision. He was personally opposed to slavery, having freed his own slaves, but his southern sensibilities and his own intimate knowledge of the institution led to his belief in the common southern anti-slavery solution of repatriation, as opposed to abolition. The case dogged the rest of his nine years as Chief Justice, even though he displayed a certain judicial brilliance in his later decisions with long and thoughtful opinions on the role of the states and national government in fugitive slave cases, in Ableman v. Booth just before the Civil War, and on the rights of civilians in wartime in Ex Parte Merryman during the conflict itself.

Plagued all of his life with ill health and never a rich man, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney died on October 12, 1864, unmourned by most Northern supporters of a war against rebellion he believed privately the Union had no legal right to wage. He was 87 years old.
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