Rehnquist on hand for reopening of Taney House

Society seeks new view of ex-justice and his times

April 08, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Moments after stepping over the threshold of the two-story red-brick house on South Bentz Street yesterday, Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist said it was his "great pleasure" to stand in the structure once owned by his 19th-century predecessor, Roger Brooke Taney.

But the unassuming building named after Taney, who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that black Americans were property, has not always been so warmly regarded. The house -- deemed "a national shrine" in 1930 -- has been viewed with ambivalence by visitors who couldn't help but notice the quarters out back, which once housed some of Taney's eight slaves.

"The site has been a lightning rod for controversy over the years," said Mark Hudson, executive director of the Historical Society of Frederick County, which took possession of the building last year.

"We're trying to offer a more objective and complete picture of Taney."

The chief justice was on hand yesterday to commemorate the reopening of Taney House, which had been closed since December as the society changed its contents to offer a new interpretation of Taney and the period in which he lived.

"We shouldn't be too quick to judge people of the past by standards of our own," Rehnquist said later at a luncheon in Middletown attended by Charles McC. Mathias, a former U.S. senator, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.

In his speech, Rehnquist, who wrote extensively about the effects of the Dred Scott decision in his 1987 book, The Supreme Court: How it Was, How it Is, said centuries from now, people might look back and consider 21st-century Americans barbarians for eating meat.

In the 1857 decision, Taney wrote that Dred Scott, a longtime slave suing for his freedom, was not a citizen and that no slaves -- nor their free descendants -- had standing to sue in federal courts.

He based his ruling, in part, on an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, of which he said: "It is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration."

In writing the majority opinion, Taney also declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state but prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of the latitude line defining Missouri's southern border. Taney ruled that Congress could not outlaw slavery in U.S. territories.

In his book, Rehnquist said the decision "exacerbated the clash of opinion over slavery" and "violated at least one and probably two canons of sensible constitutional interpretation."

Rehnquist said yesterday that the Scott decision "marred" Taney for history, then painted a three-dimensional portrait of the former chief justice of the United States.

Rehnquist pointed out that Taney was a clear, forceful writer and a great legal mind who became the first Roman Catholic to sit on the bench. (He was also the first judge to wear trousers rather than knee breeches under his robe, Rehnquist said, triggering laughter from the audience.)

A more down-to-earth image of Taney is also reflected in the restored house, which he owned from 1815 to 1823.

Gone is the proud bust of Taney that used to greet visitors in the front parlor. The room appears less reverential: white sheer drapes on the windows, unremarkable rugs on the hardwood floors, a sewing wheel and baby's crib in the back parlor.

Site manager Randolph J. Davis, who gave Rehnquist a tour, said it is not clear whether Taney ever lived in the house.

The historical society has tried to present it as an example of how middle-class people of the early 1800s might have lived.

The house is filled with historical artifacts, including a small wooden desk similar to the one on which Taney wrote the Scott decision and a blanket chest that belonged to his wife, Ann, sister of "The Star-Spangled Banner" author Francis Scott Key.

During his tours, Davis reminds visitors that three years after buying the house, Taney freed his slave, Claryssa, and her 4-month-old daughter. By the 1840s, he adds, Taney had freed all his slaves.

"Based on the Dred Scott decision, he was vilified," Davis said. "We're leaving it to the public to make up their own minds about him."

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