Roger Brooke Taney. The most successful...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

March 18, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY Roger Brooke Taney. The most successful politician in Maryland's history was born 216 years ago yesterday.

All anyone remembers him for today is that he wrote the decision in the infamous Dred Scott case. Blacks in particular hate him. Early this month Prince George's County blacks got the Roger B. Taney Middle School in Camp Springs renamed. There is a move to pull down -- Lenin-style -- statues of him in Annapolis and Baltimore.

Taney was born in Calvert County, settled in Frederick, later in Baltimore. He was a lawyer and legislator. Taney started political life as a Federalist (a Republican in today's lineup). He became a Jacksonian Democrat. Andy named him his attorney general. Later he tried to name him secretary of the Treasury, but the Senate killed that. To Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, et al., Taney symbolized democracy's aggressiveness against banks and other conservative institutions and ideas.

Andy nominated him to the Supreme Court. Again the Senate stopped him. Then the chief justice died and Jackson nominated him for that post. This time he got the job.

That was in 1836. For the next 20 years Taney led the court in adapting constitutional principles to the new age of democracy. The chief justice was an ally of the egalitarians and reformers who wanted expanded economic and political rights for ordinary people.

That's ordinary white people. Which is the problem with Taney's reputation. Though he had freed his own slaves over a decade before, he did not believe other slave-owners could be forced to do the same under the terms of the Constitution. This led him to write the most influential and probably most despised Supreme Court opinion in history.

That was the opinion of the court in Dred Scott vs. Sandford in 1857. The chief justice wrote that since slaves were not considered citizens when the Constitution was written, they and their descendants had no federal citizenship rights. The Founding Fathers did not consider blacks fit to be treated as whites' equals, Taney said.

I call the opinion "despised," but in fact, at the time both sides -- abolitionists and slave-owners -- really loved it. The latter loved it TC because they figured they no longer had to compromise with the former about extending slavery into the West. The former, already fearful the political route to emancipation would take forever, loved it because they realized that Taney's unequivocal opinion and insulting language meant war was just a matter of time.

It was, and they hastened it by quoting Taney's language over and over everywhere, feeding flames of anger at racist oppression. It was the Rodney King tape of the 1850s.

I understand why black Americans hate Taney, but we all need to remember two things. (1) There was more to him than Dred Scott. (2) Dred Scott probably advanced the timetable for emancipation by at least a generation.

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