No justice in honoring a monumental disgrace to history

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 04, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney occupies a place of honor in Mount Vernon Square, directly across from the Washington Monument.

Taney sits on a cushioned bench, looking calm and contemplative, his judicial robes draped about his shoulders. His left hand rests upon a bound copy of the Constitution of the United States. His right hand grasps a scroll.

"(Maryland sculptor W.H.) Rinehart has achieved a masterpiece in this wonderfully quiet, yet dynamic figure. A recent critic has truthfully said that the Rinehart Taney remains one of the most impressive monuments in the country," wrote William Sener Rusk in his 1929 book, "Art in Baltimore. Monuments and Memorials."

Taney was a Baltimorean who married Francis Scott Key's sister, Ann. He served as attorney general and secretary of the treasury before his appointment as chief justice of the United States in 1836. He died in 1864.

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney may also be one of this country's greatest villains. Why are we honoring this man?

We ought to dig the old boy up and dump him into the harbor where he belongs. Let him gaze with calm contemplation and quiet dynamism upon the fish.

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney was the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the Supreme Court ruled that blacks had no rights under U.S. law that white men are bound to respect.

Blacks "had for more than a century before (the Constitution was ratified) been regarded as an inferior order and altogether unfit .. to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations," Taney wrote, "and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit."

Scott, by the way, appears to have been an intelligent, well-spoken man, born into slavery in Missouri, who had lived as a free man with his wife and daughter in Illinois and Wisconsin. He made the courageous decision to move back to Missouri in order to challenge by law that territory's regard of him as a slave.

Taney, of course, took it upon himself to set Scott in his place.

"It was a devastating blow and it came at a crucial moment in our history," said Dr. Charles Johnson Jr., head of Morgan State University's history department. "There clearly was no basis for it. There was no indication in the Constitution that blacks were never to be treated as citizens. It took the 13th and 14th Amendments to overturn it. Some would say it wasn't fully overturned until the Brown decision in 1954.

"I think he was a Southern gentleman, a member of the aristocracy, who twisted his decision to appeal to members of his class," continued Johnson. "No, I can't think of any reason to honor the man in any way."

Others disagree.

History books label the Dred Scott decision "unfortunate" or "mistaken" or "misguided," but they tend to make allowances for Taney the man, saying he was a product of his time, a victim of his environment.

When a Sun reader suggested in 1986 that the state remove a similar statue honoring Taney from in front of the State House in Annapolis, other readers rallied to the jurist's defense. The statue remains.

Reference books in the Sun library describe Taney as a man "who brought honor to his state and to himself by his high sense of duty, his brilliance of intellect, and his transparent integrity."

Scott is described in those same references simply as "a slave."

In a nutshell, is why we still need a Black History Month. We haven't purged our history of the biases of the past. We refuse to.

We would like our children to believe, in February, that persons of African descent are persons of intrinsic worth, yet we continue to celebrate for the rest of the year the architects of their cruel and inhuman bondage.

Apparently, we think our children are fools and don't notice the contradiction.

So Taney must go. Dig him up. Drag him away. Melt him down.

To paraphrase his own decision, Taney has no accomplishments which the people of this city are bound to respect.

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