Lasting Opinion

150 years after the Dred Scott case, some believe it's time Chief Justice Roger Taney of Maryland be judged for more than one infamous ruling

March 06, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

FREDERICK — FREDERICK-- --A bronze plaque identifies the red-brick rowhouse on South Bentz Street in Frederick as once having belonged to Roger Brooke Taney and his wife, Anne. Plain and simple.

The larger, more-detailed wooden sign that used to hang out front has been banished to the attic; the sign that made note of the slave quarters in the backyard and the fact that Taney served as chief justice of the United States from 1836 to 1864, during which time he "delivered the opinion in the Dred Scott case."

"There were some decisions made by the historical society to kind of step back a little from the Dred Scott case because it created such controversy," says Ron Marvin, site manager of the Taney House (whose research indicates Taney may have never actually lived here).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of that decision, considered among the most infamous in legal annals and, some Taney critics contend, so inflammatory it propelled a country into civil war.

Not a highlight most people would want on their life's resume. However, "one opinion does not make a man," cautions Marvin, who, in his three years on the job with the Historical Society of Frederick County, has become an admirer of Taney's character - and lends his voice to a small chorus that believes Taney has been miscast as the villain in a bad history movie.

"He was an exceptionally bright and, I think, fair-minded lawyer and judge, till he came to the slavery issue in the heat of battle," says New York Law School professor James F. Simon, author of a new dual biography on Taney and Abraham Lincoln.

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who had traveled with his master into the free state of Illinois and free territory of Wisconsin. Having temporarily enjoyed de facto freedom, he filed suit to make his status permanent. On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court ruled against him 7-2.

Taney (pronounced "Taw-nee"), then a frail 79 years old, wrote the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford - lapsing into uncharacteristically raw language that still stings.

He based his argument on a strict interpretation of constitutional law and federal jurisdiction. He could have stopped there.

Instead, Taney put his own spin on the Founding Fathers' intent, declaring they regarded blacks as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Thus, with the eyes of an anxious nation on him, Taney managed to fall to the occasion.

"If not for the Dred Scott case," says Marvin, "he'd be considered the greatest chief justice, if not the second greatest to [John] Marshall."

Super-sized IF.

Those sympathetic to the Southern cause praised Taney. In the north he was widely vilified. The New York Tribune labeled the decision "wicked."

Lincoln pounded unmercifully on the Taney court in his epic 1858 Illinois Senate-campaign debates with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln lost the election but found the political voice that would carry him to the presidency two years later.

Taney died in October 1864, six months before the Civil War ground to its bloody end; at the very time his native state of Maryland abolished slavery.

Traditionally, a bust of a deceased chief justice is quickly cast and put on display in the Supreme Court. But emotions ran so high that it wasn't until 1874 that Congress appropriated money to memorialize Taney.

That drama came as news to Marvin, a 38-year-old self-described "history geek" with a master's degree in museum studies, when he arrived at the Taney House in 2003. He knew about Dred Scott, but almost nothing of Roger Taney.

He was working in Kulpsville, Pa., at the Morgan Log House - built circa 1700 by Daniel Boone's grandparents and hardly a magnet for controversy - when the Historical Society of Frederick County asked him to come help revive interest in the Taney House.

It has been a historic site since 1929. There were as many as 4,000 visitors a year in the 1940s. But Taney's star gradually dimmed even in his own state. By the time Marvin was handed the keys to the front door, the number of visitors was down to 400.

A tarnished name

Taney's name already had been taken off an elementary school in Prince George's County. Statues of him in Frederick and Baltimore's Mount Vernon Square draw occasional complaints. The one outside the State House in Annapolis so rankled some legislators in the early 1990s that a resolution was proposed to have it removed. Interest faded after a complementary monument to civil-rights pioneer (and Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall was erected nearby.

A good compromise, says state Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, a sponsor of the dump-Taney resolution. Still, "it's irritating," he says, to see that statue in so prominent a location. "I can't imagine how some of my African-American colleagues must feel."

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