Taney statues, symbols of bigotry, have to go


February 18, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I propose a plebiscite to decide the fate of the Roger Brooke Taney statues, which for over 100 years have stood in front of the State House in Annapolis and across from the Washington Monument in Baltimore's Mount Vernon Square.

Historians, legal scholars and moral philosophers can present their cases, pro and con. If the people decide Taney was a great hero, the statues will remain. If they determine that he was a hateful old villain, then a crew of skilled workmen will attack the statues with airjacks and sledgehammers, reduce them to tiny bits of gravel, and spread those tiny bits across the turf of the elephant exhibit at the Baltimore Zoo.

Taney was chief justice of the United States during the period leading up to the Civil War and wrote the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

In that decision, Taney eloquently argued that blacks were a "degraded" and "inferior race," scorned throughout history by the "civilised and enlightened portions of the world" and therefore "doomed" to a life of slavery for their own good.

Blacks, wrote Taney, "had for more than a century before [the ratification of the Constitution] been regarded as being of an inferior order; and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; 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."

The city erected a statue in Taney's honor in 1887.

I raised this issue of the Taney statues last year about this time and was soundly rebuked by many, many readers across the country.

Some readers argued that Taney was one of the finest justices ever to preside over the Supreme Court, as well as a statesman and a scholar and a humanitarian.

He married the daughter of Francis Scott Key, readers pointed out, and surely, the sister of the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" would not marry a scoundrel. Other readers defended the Dred Scott decision as being legally correct, even if we disagree with it today. There is even a popular story to the effect that Taney, the son of Calvert County slave owners, so loved the black race that he freed his own slaves early in his career. This story suggests that Taney must have been tormented by the brutal words he felt compelled, by the tyranny of law and precedent, to write.

But the greatest number of readers accused me of being a racist and a swine for even raising the issue.

"Who cares one way or the other?" demanded a Florida woman. "You are just causing trouble and dividing the races."

This appears to have been the prevailing view at City Hall and in the state capital as well, since the statues remain and no elected official has bothered to examine the issue.

Well, I for one think it matters. I think the Taney question cuts to the heart of what we call black history vs. American history.

Taney may have been a hateful racist bigot who, in order to maintain white supremacy in America, deliberately twisted the Constitution -- not to mention historical truth, since it was not true even then that "civilised" people universally despised those of African descent.

Or Taney may have been a helpless victim of his times and culture who rendered an ill-considered decision, helped plunge the nation into war, and crippled the power of the Supreme Court for over a decade.

Or Taney may have been a great and courageous humanitarian who loved black people, wept in private over their plight, but felt compelled to uphold the constitutional principle of states' rights.

We can either pity him, applaud him, or revile him, but we cannot do all three, and in only one of those cases does he deserve a statue.

Every February, during Black History Month, we try to graft onto the national consciousness favorable stories about the role of blacks in America without disturbing, or even examining, the racist views that have tainted our official history for the past 200 to 300 years.

We cannot continue to maintain a segregated and contradictory view of our past. Silence, I believe, maintains the status quo. And it is the status quo, not little old me, that causes trouble and divides the races.

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