Any discussion of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney inevitably begins with the opinion he published in 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sanford.
“It was an extremely polarizing ruling,” said Tim Huebner, a history professor at Rhodes College and the author of a book about Taney’s time on the court. “He was saying that African Americans had no rights under the U.S. Constitution, and arguably the most infamous words of the history of the court were those words spoken by Chief Justice Taney, that they had no ‘rights that the white man was bound to respect.’”
The ruling overturned a federal law barring slavery in the west and helped set the country on a path toward civil war.
Taney’s role in the case was a major reason behind the decisions by city and state officials last week to remove two statues of Taney from their pedestals — one on the front lawn of the State House in Annapolis, the other on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore.
Dred Scott came in the latter half of Taney’s 28 years on the court and toward the end of a long career in public service. A devoted Marylander, he served in the General Assembly and as state attorney general. He later served in President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet, first as acting secretary of war, then attorney general.
“Jackson did not have a lot of elite supporters,” said Mark Graber, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about Dred Scott. “Taney was one of the first, and that's how he rose to power."
After the Dred Scott opinion, Graber said the second-most important thing Taney did was help Jackson destroy the Second Bank of the United States.
“He's the person who precipitated a crisis,” Graber said. “When two secretary of the treasuries refused to remove federal deposits from the national bank, Taney became secretary of the treasury and he removed the deposits.”
Taney’s loyalty to Jackson in that episode likely led to his appointment to the Supreme Court. But the appointment was contentious.
“Taney's reputation kind of goes up and down throughout history, and actually at the time that he was nominated by President Andrew Jackson, he was a very, very controversial figure,” Huebner said. “He was seen as a sort of political hack who had been put on the court basically to try to carry out Jackson's will.”
Once on the court, Taney’s opinions helped shape the relationship between the federal government and the states, said Martha Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University.
But Taney’s opinions, both as attorney general and on the court, often hinged on race.
“One of his earliest decisions as the attorney general of the United States … turns on whether or not free African Americans are citizens because there's a question about whether or not they can obtain federal licenses to pilot boats along the coastal waters of the United States,” Jones said.
Taney didn’t believe it would be possible for multiple races to coexist in a democracy, Jones said. He was a colonizationist, meaning he believed that free African Americans should be strongly encouraged or even paid to leave the United States.
“The reason that no black person can be a citizen of the United States in an operational sense for Taney is that that would mean that they would have a claim to stay and would not be subject to colonization or removal,” Jones said.
She said Taney expressed regret about Dred Scott late in life, but not because he thought he had been wrong. Rather, he felt that his reasoning was misunderstood. He wrote a second Dred Scott opinion to explain that reasoning. It was published after his death.