Preserving History in Frederick

August 14, 1993

Another bit of American -- and Maryland -- history nearly closed its doors recently. The Roger Brooke Taney House, a Frederick historic landmark, was on the verge of shutting out the public before a story in The Sun prompted an anonymous donation of $1,000. So now the house will remain open on weekends till October. After that? The fate of the historic 194-year-old house once again will be up in the air.

That indeed would be unfortunate. The two-story brick house on South Bentz Street contains family heirlooms, Taney's law books and the Francis Scott Key Museum (Taney was married to Key's sister). Maryland's most prominent and influential political figure of the 19th century deserves to be remembered.

Taney is best known (or vilified) for writing the Dred Scott decision in 1857 for a 6-3 Supreme Court majority in which he maintained that blacks had no constitutional rights. Today, that decision stands out as manifestly wrong. It helped exacerbate ill will between North and South. Taney, though, was clinging to a Constitution that still lacked the great Civil War era amendments.

The enormity of this controversy has obscured other Taney achievements that ought to be remembered. He was one of the foremost Jacksonian Democrats of his day, serving as attorney general under Andrew Jackson. In that position and later as chief justice of the Supreme Court for 26 years, Taney helped the country and the courts embrace the egalitarian style of democracy that still reverberates today.

It would be a shame if one of the few landmarks linked to Taney could not be viewed by the public. An endowment barely provides enough money for maintenance. Two Baltimore foundations have expressed interest in helping out, but those plans are far from definite.

Those who respect and are knowledgeable about our heritage should help contribute to preservation of the Taney House. A fine example of an 18th century home could be lost without some financial support. A chance for Marylanders to learn about both Taney and Key and the times in which they lived could be forfeited. To quote an oft-quoted remark of George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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