Maryland too has reminder of racism at State House

January 20, 2000|By Michael Olesker

HERE IN civilized Maryland, we do not fly the flag of the Confederacy over our State House. We look with disdain upon those South Carolina rednecks who fight the Civil War 135 years after its alleged conclusion. Outside our State House here in civilized Annapolis, instead of a flag that symbolizes enslavement of human beings, we display a marvelous statue to honor one man. His name was Roger B. Taney. He was chief justice of the United States.

OK, so he did help spark the Civil War.

In South Carolina, those thousands of people who gathered this week to protest the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse in Columbia have now made their way home. The sensitive souls there stand by their banner and say they intend to keep waving it.

They claim this is not intended as a racist insult but merely as a memorial to those who fought with "honor" in the War Between the States -- as if there were some kind of "honor" in defending slavery the rest of us might have overlooked.

But here in Maryland, nobody thinks very much about ol' Roger B. Taney.

Or, for that matter, poor Dred Scott.

There's the statue of Taney, out there on the State House lawn, shivering in yesterday's cold and, perhaps, the chill hand dealt him by history. He didn't care much for black folks, and he said so in a little piece of legal business known as the Dred Scott decision.

The writing at the base of the Taney statue doesn't exactly mention this. It says Taney was chief justice of the United States and attorney general of Maryland before that. But there's nothing about Dred Scott.

Just for a little class review: Scott was a slave owned by a Dr. John Emerson. Emerson was an Army surgeon, and thus got around. He moved from post to post, some of them in slave states, others in free states. Then, in 1846, he died.

Whereupon, Dred Scott found an attorney and sued for his freedom, pointing out that he had lived in states where slavery was illegal. A St. Louis court backed him, but the Missouri Supreme Court overruled and declared Scott, his wife and his child were still slaves.

The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the chief justice (and former slave owner) was the Roger B. Taney whose image sits on the State House lawn today.

The high court split along regional and political lines on Scott. Each justice wrote an opinion, and it was Taney's ruling that stood as the majority decision. He raised three points, each of which dealt a body blow to the cause of abolitionists.

Free or slave, he said, black people were not citizens. Therefore, they had no standing before the court. Also, he wrote, they "are so inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."

And then Taney got personal. He said Dred Scott had never ceased to be a slave and was the property of the owner, no different from a mule or a horse. And because property is protected by the Bill of Rights, Congress had no right to take such property away from those who owned it.

The decision split the country. It infuriated those who opposed slavery, and it emboldened Southerners and slave traders, who said Taney's ruling allowed each state to set its own slavery policy. A year later, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas were engaged in their well-known debates about this. And not much later, all words turned to war.

Thus, the question for the day: Are we comfortable with a statue of Roger B. Taney on our State House lawn?

"Well," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday, "there's a hell of a difference between flying a flag over a statehouse and putting a statue in a yard. [Taney's] a Marylander and part of our history. You might say an ugly part. I mean, a work of art shouldn't be destroyed. Maybe they could put him somewhere else. A graveyard somewhere."

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller saw it another way.

"A terrible legacy of one dreadful political decision," he said. "But Taney was a great Marylander and a great American. One of the greatest Supreme Court justices in history. He used the Constitution to try to save the nation from war but actually precipitated the war. It's easy to second-guess history and a person's motives."

One saving grace, Miller said: the statue of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall on the other side of the State House, and of the slave Kunte Kinte a few blocks away by the city's docks.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount agreed, with a caveat.

"I dislike the Dred Scott decision, of course," the Senate majority leader said yesterday. "But Taney was articulating the temper of those times into law. We have to bury the Civil War. We're the only nation on Earth that keeps fighting it. Other nations have had civil wars, but they don't go back and fight them. We do."

Roger B. Taney said the same thing, almost.

"Slavery is a blot on our national character," he said in the 1820s, "and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away."

Gradually, see? Six score and 15 years after the war, South Carolina may gradually decide to take down the Confederate flag -- and Maryland might at least put an inscription at the base of the Roger B. Taney statue: This was a smart man, but he made one dreadful decision.

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