Lawn Jockey at the State's Front Door

February 25, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — Alexandria, Virginia. -- Democracy works, but often in fits and starts. Almost exactly a year ago on this page, I suggested that the statue of Roger Taney that sits at the main entrance to the Maryland State House in Annapolis be replaced with one of Thurgood Marshall.

I wrote that Marshall, who argued the famous Brown desegregation case before the Supreme Court and later became its first black justice, was far more deserving of a place of honor on Maryland's front lawn than Taney, who as chief justice authored the court's infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 -- declaring that blacks ''were beings of an inferior order'' who had ''no rights which the white man was bound to respect.''

At the time I was a Maryland resident, and I wrote my state legislators about the issue. I received several interested responses, but it was too late in the session to introduce legislation on the matter. This term, however, Del. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County co-sponsored a joint resolution with Del. Tony Fulton of Baltimore that would create a commission to study the feasibility of removing Taney's statue and erecting one of Marshall.

The resolution was killed in the House Appropriations Committee February 4. Only one committee member voted for it, Del. Nancy Kopp of Montgomery County. Delegate Fulton, amazed at the bill's defeat, remarked that the experience ''was like reliving the Civil War.''

Ironically, the two major opponents to the resolution were African-American -- Delegates Howard (Pete) Rawlings and Richard Dixon. Delegate Rawlings, chair of the Appropriations Committee, argued that the measure was ''similar to taking down statues of Jefferson and Washington, all of whom were slave owners. But they were part of this country's history like Taney was.'' He felt that the ''bill sought to be divisive rather than moving us ahead.''

Delegate Dixon, of Carroll County, Taney's birthplace, found the statue ''distasteful'' but believed that ''history is too important, regardless of whether we like what happened, for us to erase it.'' Delegate Dixon's great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, he well knows the impact Taney's Dred Scott decision had on the nation.

With all due respect to Messrs. Rawlings and Dixon, removing Taney's statue is not erasing history. Nothing can ever erase the stain of slavery that soiled our Constitution and tore our nation apart. We do well to remember that ours has never been a perfect government -- that, in the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, it was ''defective from the start.'' Only by remembering can we hope to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Taney does not occupy his place of honor at Maryland's front door because its citizens believed he made a mistake. Rather, Marylanders during the Reconstruction period thought he was an unfairly reviled, unsung hero of the Constitution.

The U.S. Congress had for nine years after Taney died in 1864 refused to place his bust with those of the other former chief justices in the Supreme Court chamber, then located in the Capitol. The Maryland legislature sought to remedy the insult in 1867 by appropriating $5,000 (later increased to $15,000) to erect a statue of Taney at the State House. In December 1872 the statue was unveiled with great ceremony where it now stands.

Apologists for Taney, both during Reconstruction and today, maintain that in his Dred Scott ruling he was merely being faithful to a conservative reading of the Constitution. In fact, Taney's decision was a very activist one, as contemporary historians and constitutional scholars agree.

Taney declared in sweeping language that persons of African ancestry, free or slave, could never be citizens of the United States, because at the time the Constitution was ratified no state recognized blacks as citizens. Taney ignored the fact, pointed out by the dissent, that in five states prior to 1787 free blacks not only were citizens, but voted on equal terms with whites.

Having declared that Dred Scott was not a citizen, Taney could have dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction -- the truly conservative course to take. Instead, he declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, ripping apart the uneasy balance between slave and free states that was keeping the Union together. By reaching to resolve a sectional crisis that was not legitimately before him, Taney hastened the Civil War.

Perhaps that is Taney's greatest contribution to history. His Dred Scott decision clearly demonstrated that, in Justice Marshall's words, our nation's ''contradiction between guaranteeing liberty and justice to all, and denying both to Negroes'' could not be resolved through compromise. It had to be eliminated.

We should not forget Roger Taney -- the Dred Scott case is too great a blot on history -- but we should not honor him, either. Taney's statue is offensive not merely because of his actions, but because it sits at the State House, which represents Maryland's laws and lawmakers. Taney embodies exactly what legislators should not do: give prejudice the power of law. His statue is the equivalent of a lawn jockey at the state's front door.

Democracy works. The citizens of Maryland must let their legislators know if they want the symbol of their state's lawmaking to be Roger Taney, who took extraordinary measures to deny equal justice under law, or Thurgood Marshall, who strove to make it a reality for all people. Which side of history will Maryland be on?

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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