“The Death of Roger B. Taney,” New York Times, October 14, 1864, p. 4.
The Death of Roger B. TaneyThe demise of Chief-Justice TANEY comes almost like some strange visitation. For one full generation he has occupied the highest judicial position in the United States, and it almost seems identified with his name. The disturbance of old associations is all the greater, because it happens at the very height of the civil conflict which is linked indissolubly with the most important act of his judicial life.
Judge TANEY was a man of pure moral character, and of great legal learning and acumen. Had it not been for his unfortunate Dred Scott decision, all would admit that he had, through all those years, nobly sustained his high office. That decision itself, wrong as it was, did not spring from a corrupt or malignant heart. It came, we have the charity to believe, from a sincere desire to compose, rather than exacerbate, sectional discord. But yet it was none the less an act of supreme folly, and its shadow will ever rest on his memory.
The original mistake was in gratuitously attempting to settle great party questions by judicial decision. The attempt was gratuitous, for the very decision of Judge TANEY, that the court had no jurisdiction in the case over the court below, was in itself sufficient reason for not undertaking a decision of all the constitutional questions incidentally connected with its merits. What Justice CURTIS declared in his very able option, that “on so grave a subject as this, such an exertion of judicial power transcends the limits of the authority of the court, as described by its repeated decisions,” will unquestionably be the judgment of history.
The Supreme Court never from its first organization took faith which so much impaired the public action in its impartiality and wisdom. In view of the sides taken by the respective Judges, it was impossible for the body of the people not to believe that the court was influenced by party and sectional feeling. The court should have foreseen this invidious position, and have avoided it, by taking no further cognizance of the case than necessity absolutely demanded. It was useless for them to attempt to settle great political questions. Such attempts before made, even in the palmist days of the court, and on questions of immeasurably less importance, had failed. The court is no oracle. It does not pronounce its decisions with a categorical Yea or Nay. It must, like a legislative body, stand on its rendered reasons; and these reasons must stand the test of criticism before they can be accepted as conclusive, and as authoritative law. If the reasoning of the court is no more cogent and luminous than the reasoning of the legislature, it is worth no more. No candid man who has read the decision of Judge TANEY will say that that opinion evinced more ability, more clearness of perception and strength of reasoning than had been displayed by Mr. WEBSTER and Mr. CLAY in the Senate, in their maintenance of opposite opinions. Nor will any candid man who has read the dissenting opinions of Judges CURTIS and MCLEAN claim that their views were not as cogently put as those of the Chief Justice. It was a natural necessity that the final solution of these great civil questions could come only from continued public discussion, and the condition in which the public mind eventually reposes.
The Dred Scott decision was made public the very month that President BUCHANAN acceded to power, and it formed the basis of his whole policy in respect to Slavery through his entire administration. It shipwrecked both him and his party. It contributed, more than all other things combined, to the election of President LINCOLN. The people would not abide this attempt of the majority of the Supreme Court to foist upon the Constitution the extremist dogmas of JOHN C. CALHOUN. They would not tolerate the doctrine that the Constitution, by its own force, established Slavery in all the Territories of the United States, making Slavery a national instead of a local institution. That the Dred Scott decision was a complete yielding to the full desires and demands of Slavery, is made strikingly manifest by the fact that the Montgomery Constitution, which was shaped by slaveholders without the slightest let or hindrance, does not contain a syllable in the interest of Slavery which is not found precisely in this Dred Scott Decision or Chief-Justice TANEY. There is no shadow of a new guaranty for this institution except the section that in all newly acquired territory “Slavery shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the territorial government, and the inhabitants of the several States shall have the right to take such territory any slaves lawfully held by them;” and another section securing the right of “transit and sojourn in any State with slaves and other property.” Those are just the points on which would have been secured for Slavery under the Federal Constitution, had Judge TANEY’S interpretation become established law.
His removal by death will make an epoch in the history of the Supreme Court. Unquestionably his place will be filled by some jurist who is in perfect accord with all the great Union principles and Anti-Slavery sentiments which will henceforth control the executive and legislative branches of the Government. It is true that the old Democratic Judges WAYNE, CATRON, NELSON, GRIER, and CLIFFORD will still constitute half of the court; but even were they disposed to make another political decision in the interest of Slavery, their combined opinions would have no effect against the other half other court, headed by the Chief-Justice. Whatever great questions may be forced upon the court in connection with the rehabilitation of the States whose people have been in rebellion we may now be confident, will be adjudicated in accordance with the fundamental principles of our Government, as recognized by its founders, and in harmony, too, with the great policies imposed upon the country by the necessity of destroying the present rebellion and every possibility of its recurrence in the future.