Taney, Roger Brooke (1777-1864)

views updated May 29 2018

Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864)


Chief justice of the u.s. supreme court

Taney in History. Roger Brooke Taney is remembered generally for having authored the majority decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), perhaps the single worst decision in the history of the Supreme Courta ghastly error by the reckoning of one important legal scholar. According to a later chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes, Dred Scott became one clear example where the Court suffered severely from self-inflicted wounds. Yet regardless of that notorious decision, a small but formidable body of judicial scholars in the late twentieth century consider Taney to be one of the great justices of the Supreme Court, ranked alongside John Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Background and Early Career. Taney was born in Calvert County, Maryland, in 1777 to an aristocratic planter family. He was educated in rural schools and by a private tutor before attending Dickinson College, where he graduated in 1795. Taney began to practice law in 1799. He was a staunch Federalist, serving first in the Maryland legislature as a member of the House of Delegates, then as a state senator. He broke with his party during the War of 1812 and eventually switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson. By the mid 1820s Taneys politics were Jacksonian in nature. He supported states rights, opposed monopolies, and was the author of Jacksons veto of the act that would have extended the charter of the Bank of the United States. After serving as Jacksons attorney general and briefly as secretary of war, Taney became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1835.

Chief Justice. Taney was attacked by anti-Jacksonians as a political hack who was appointed on partisan grounds rather than merit. Others saw him as an unworthy successor to the great John Marshall, who died in July 1835. Taneys decisions conformed to the Jacksonian vision of the West, including its philosophy of state sovereignty, belief in the sanctity of private property, and defense of slavery. Taney heard a broad spectrum of cases over the course of his tenure, and some of the most significant reflected the controversial movements affecting the nation during a period of national expansion. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) Taney confronted a conflict arising out of the rapid growth of corporations and the impact of such commercial growth on the rights of communities. While the rights of private property are sacredly guarded, he wrote in the majority decision, we must not forget that the community also have rights, and that the happiness and well being of every citizen depends on their faithful preservation. The chief justice sought to protect the rights of states to regulate commerce by interpreting the Constitutions commerce clausewhich empowered Congress to regulate interstate tradenarrowly. He was a staunch believer that the states were best suited to respond to the great questions that faced the nation.

Slavery. No doubt Taney believed in the fundamental inequality of races and that whites deserved to be dominant over blacks. To Taneys mind African and European Americans could never peacefully coexist in a nation in which both were free and equal. Such a view placed Taney alongside other white Southerners of his age. Yet however racist he might seem in retrospect, Taney freed his own slaves, which he had inherited; though he purchased others, he allowed them to earn manumission through work. He also supported repatriation efforts designed to send blacks back to Africa.

Dred Scott Decision. Taneys decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford can be traced to his convictions regarding the inherent inferiority of people of color, his previous record as a jurist dealing with the issue of slavery, and his adherence to the doctrines of state rights and limited federal power. Slavery was the single most explosive issue in the nation in 1857, and Taneys intent in drafting the Courts opinion was to settle the matter once and for all. He ruled that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States regardless of whether they were slaves or free people and, further, that under the Constitution slaves were property and like all other property could be transported without restriction. Perhaps most significant, Taney struck down the Missouri Compromise and declared that Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery in the Western territories (on the grounds that territories were not yet states). In the wake of Taneys opinion, which also had the effect of reinforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, legislators in some Northern and Western states passed personal liberty laws to demonstrate their continued belief that any slaves who made it to such areas could remain free.

Later Career. For what remained of his life, Taney could not escape the consequences of Dred Scott. Sen. Charles Sumner declared that Taneys name would be hooted down the page of history. His influence on the Court diminished considerably after 1861. He remained with the Union during the Civil War and attempted, mostly in vain, to uphold the Constitution against some of President Abraham Lincolns actions. When Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in April 1861, Taney ruled that the president had acted unlawfully, reminding him of his oath of office and the executives constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. Indicative of both the enormity of the secession crisis and Taneys waning power, Lincoln ignored the bitter and ineffective chief justice. Taney also privately opposed the legality of both the Emancipation Proclamation and conscription. Taney died in Washington, D.C., on 12 December 1864.


Paul Finkelman, Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997);

Charles W. Smith, Roger B. Taney: Jacksonian Jurist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936).

Taney, Roger Brooke

views updated May 17 2018


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.

Roger Brooke Taney

views updated May 23 2018

Roger Brooke Taney

Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864) was an American political leader and as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court greatly contributed to constitutional law.

Roger B. Taney was born in Calvert County, Md., on March 17, 1777, into a landed, slaveholding family that proudly traced its line back five generations. He received the rudiments of a classical education from a private tutor and at the age of 15 entered Dickinson College. There he found little to upset his aristocratic prejudices, but he did gain an abiding love of learning and graduated with honors in 1795.

As a younger son with no prospect of inheriting the family estate, young Taney chose the profession of law, with his eye on politics. In 1799 he was admitted to the bar and served one term as a Federalist representative in the state legislature. In private practice he quickly distinguished himself as one of Maryland's most promising young lawyers. He married Anne Key on Jan. 7, 1806, and she and their seven children were a constant solace throughout Taney's strenuous public life.

In Jackson's Cabinet

From 1816 through 1821 Taney served as state senator. When new parties emerged from the confusion of the 1820s, Taney cast his lot with the forces of Andrew Jackson. In 1831 he resigned his office as state attorney general, which he had held since 1827, in order to accept an appointment in President Jackson's Cabinet as attorney general. Among his opinions as attorney general, two revealed his stand on slavery: one supported South Carolina's law prohibiting free Blacks from entering the state, and one argued that Blacks could not be citizens. In 1833, as secretary of the Treasury, Taney ordered an end to the deposit of Federal money in the Second Bank of the United States, an act which killed the institution.

Aware of Taney's ability and certain of his political orthodoxy, President Jackson, on Dec. 28, 1835, appointed him to the office of chief justice of the United States, left vacant by the death of John Marshall. Taney was instrumental in shaping constitutional law to fit the new age. His opinion in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) set the tone of the new Court. The Massachusetts Legislature had chartered a new, prospectively toll-free bridge across the Charles River. The old bridge company contended that its original charter implied monopoly rights. Taney's opinion refused to recognize the doctrine of implied contract, thus giving the states more latitude to legislate in the public interest. Taney also argued that the refusal to grant monopoly by implication would encourage economic progress by preventing entrenched capital from thwarting new corporate development.

Taney was a moderate, standing between old nationalists on the Court and the more extreme states'-rightists. The Chief Justice also made clear that he was a firm friend of private property. Despite his suspicion of corporate power (his opinion in Bank of Augusta v. Earle, 1839), he broadened the interstate operation of corporations by holding that a corporations chartered in one state had the right to do business in another unless positively prohibited by that state.

Personal and Professional Qualities

Thin, stooped, and sallow, Taney did not fit a heroic mold; but his mind was acute, his pen lucid. His patience, tact, and ability were instrumental in overcoming personal and doctrinal divisions among the justices, and though the Court was frequently divided, it continued to administer the law effectively. Under Taney's leadership the Court showed more tolerance of legislative power than it had under Marshall, but it did not surrender its hard-won powers to decide.

The issue of slavery was the downfall of the Court and detracted permanently from the image of Taney's states-manship. In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Taney wrote the majority opinion for a bitterly divided Court which unwisely confronted all the explosive political questions in the case. Blacks, he said in a racist vein that has since been irrevocably associated with his name, could not be a citizen of the United States because he was recognized as inherently unequal by the Constitution. Congress, moreover, could not prohibit slavery in the territories because the 5th Amendment to the Constitution protected citizens in the possession of their property, and slaves were property.

Reaction to Taney's opinion was vehement. Almost overnight the Court fell to a new low in the opinion of the majority of Americans, who were now antislavery in sentiment. The years following the Dred Scott case until Taney's death on Oct. 12, 1864, were sad ones for the Chief Justice. Only after the passions of the Civil War had receded was it apparent that, the Dred Scott case excepted, Taney in his own way had contributed almost as much to the development of constitutional government as his great predecessor.

Further Reading

The standard biography, Carl Swisher, Roger B. Taney (1935), relates Taney's political-economic experience to his philosophy and judicial career. Walker Lewis, Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1965), supplements Swisher by concentrating on Taney's personal qualities. Samuel Tyler, Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney (1872), though old, still contains useful information, as does Charles W. Smith, Jr., Roger B. Taney: Jacksonian Jurist (1936). Two general accounts of the Supreme Court that include much information on Taney's legal career are Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1922; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926), and Charles G. Haines and Foster Sherwood, The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politicsvol. 2: 1835-1864 (1957). A work in progress, Holmes Devisee, History of the Supreme Court, will devote one volume to the Taney Court.

Additional Sources

Siegel, Martin, The Taney court, 1836-1864, Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1987. □

Taney, Roger Brooke

views updated Jun 27 2018

Taney, Roger Brooke (1777–1864) US lawyer, chief justice of the Supreme Court (1836–64). As attorney-general (1831), he aided President Jackson in a struggle with the Bank of the United States. He was appointed associate justice (1835) but was not confirmed by the Senate. The next year a Senate Democratic majority confirmed his appointment as chief justice. An advocate of states' rights, he nonetheless extended the scope and power of the Supreme Court. He was associated with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which refused African-Americans the right of citizenship and denied Congress power to forbid slavery in the territories.