Taney, Roger Brooke


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Taney, Roger Brooke

Roger Brooke Taney served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864. During his almost thirty years on the bench, Taney sought to encourage economic growth and competition by rendering decisions that reshaped the traditional law concerning property rights and commerce. Although he served with great distinction on the Court, he is best known as the author of the infamous decision in Dred Scott's case, dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857). This decision fueled sectional hostility and moved the nation closer to civil war.

Taney was born on March 17, 1777, in Calvert County, Maryland. A descendant of an aristocratic tobacco-growing family, Taney graduated from Dickinson College in 1795, studied law, and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1799. That same year he was elected to a one-year term in the Maryland House of Delegates. Taney practiced briefly in Annapolis before settling in Frederick, where he soon was recognized as a distinguished attorney.

Taney was elected to the Maryland Senate in 1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. Despite the party's belief in a strong national government, Taney endorsed States' Rights. By the time he left the Senate in 1821, the Federalist party was on the verge of extinction. Taney switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party and soon became an influential figure in the Maryland state party leadership. He was elected Maryland attorney general in 1826 and served until 1831.

President Andrew Jackson appointed Taney U.S. attorney general in 1831. Taney supported the president's opposition to rechartering the Second Bank of the United States and helped him write the Veto message. Jackson and the Democrats saw the bank as a dangerous institution that would enhance the power of the national government. Having vetoed the rechartering, in 1833 Jackson ordered Secretary of the Treasury William J. Duane to withdraw the deposits of the federal government from the bank, but Duane resigned instead. Jackson then appointed Taney secretary of the treasury so that he could carry out the order. Confirmation of Taney's appointment as treasury secretary was frustrated by members of the Whig Party in the U.S. Senate, but by that time Taney had succeeded in distributing the federal funds among several state banks.

Taney returned to private practice, but President Jackson wanted him on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1835 he nominated Taney as an associate justice, but the Senate, still disgruntled about the bank deposit issue, refused to confirm the appointment. The composition of the Senate soon changed, however, and upon the death of John Marshall in 1836, Taney was nominated and confirmed as chief justice.

"We must look at the institution of slavery as publicists, and not as casuists. It is a question of law, and not a case of conscience."
—Roger Brooke Taney

In his first major opinion as chief justice, in the case of charles river bridge v. proprietors of warren bridge, 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 420, 9 L. Ed. 773 (1837), Taney wrote for the majority of a divided Court. Taney decided that a franchise to operate a toll bridge that had been granted by the state of Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century, in the absence of explicit provisions, could not be construed as granting a Monopoly to the toll bridge operator. Therefore, when the Massachusetts state legislature later granted another franchise to operate a competing toll bridge nearby, the legislature did not violate Article I, Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from impairing the obligation of contracts. The opinion demonstrated Taney's belief that economic development could best be promoted and the public good most expeditiously furthered by fostering competition.

Until Dred Scott Taney had demonstrated a reluctance to make the Supreme Court the arbiter of national political issues. By the mid-1850s, however, the national debate over Slavery had almost reached the boiling point. Taney believed a decision by the Court would have a tempering effect on the country. He was clearly wrong.

Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army surgeon, John Emerson, who resided in Missouri. In 1836 Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota, but was then a territory in which slavery had been expressly forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1846 Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri state court, arguing that his residence in a free territory released him from slavery. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected his argument, and Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court heard arguments in Dred Scott in 1855 and 1856. The Court could have properly disposed of the case on narrow procedural grounds, but Taney decided that the Court needed to address the status of slavery in the territories. He wrote a tortuous opinion, arguing that because of the prevailing attitudes toward slavery and African Americans in 1787–1789, when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, a slave was not and never could become a federal citizen. In addition, Taney ruled that the free descendants of slaves were not federal citizens and that property in slaves was entitled to such protection that Congress could not constitutionally forbid slavery in the territories.

The immediate effect of the Dred Scott decision was to convince abolitionists that the South and the Supreme Court planned to impose slavery throughout the Union. Taney was attacked as a former slave owner (though he had freed his slaves, whom he had inherited) and was called wicked, cowardly, and hypocritical. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, it became clear that Taney's decision had failed to achieve its essential purpose. Taney remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, yet his effectiveness and that of the Court had been seriously compromised by Dred Scott. Taney sought to protect constitutional rights during the Civil War, ruling that even in wartime the Executive Branch and the military had no power to suspend constitutional protections (Ex Parte Merryman, 17 Fed. Cas. 144 [1861]). Though Taney saw the Court as a restraining influence on the exercise of Arbitrary power by other branches of government, his efforts were ineffective. The Radical Republican–controlled Congress and President Abraham Lincoln ignored the pronouncements of the Court. From Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights act of 1866 (14 Stat. 27) through the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the Republicans repeatedly repudiated Dred Scott. Nevertheless, Taney continued to hold the office of chief justice until his death on October 12, 1864, in Washington, D.C.

Further readings

Siegel, Martin. 1987. The Taney Court, 1836–1864. Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press.

Smith, Charles W. 1936. Roger B. Taney: Jacksonian Jurist. Reprint, 1973. New York: Da Capo Press.