Friday, April 27, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 27: A surprising anti-slavery Jacksonian (1)

One member of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet had an antislavery background: Roger Taney. Yes, that Roger Taney, now infamous as the Chief Justice of the Dred Scott decision (1857) that opened the way to undermining even state restrictions on slavery and, by rendering legal resolution of the slavery controversy effectively impossible, made the Civil War inevitable.

Roger Taney (1777-1864)

Of course, things that look inevitable in retrospect often look very different while they are happening in real time. In the Dred Scott instance, it was clear at the time that it would dramatically escalated the slavery conflict by expanding the power of slaveholders over free states. But what looks like Taney's fate in retrospect to become the pro-slavery Chief Justice who stands as one of the great villains of American history must have seemed an unlikely destination to those who knew him in his younger days.

Timothy Huebner looks at Taney's changing relationship to slavery in "Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond - and before - Dred Scott" The Journal of American History June 2010. Taney defended a white Methodist minister named Jacob Gruber who had been indicted on the charge that he "did feloniously consult, conspire, ... to raise and insurrection and rebellion in the state", based on a sermon he gave in Taney's home state of Maryland in 1818 to a mixed white and African-American crowd. Gruber had posed the rhetorical question, "Is it not a reproach to a man to hold articles of liberty and independence in one hand and a bloody whip in the other, while a negro stands and trembles before him, with his back cut and bleeding?"

After Taney's death, Taney's defense of Gruber became, oddly enough, integrated into the Lost Cause narrative that denied that slavery caused the Civil War. Pointing to the anti-slavery views that Taney had expressed in his defense of Gruber in particular, the neo-Confederate narrative produced an argument that Huebner summarizes as follows, "In this framework Taney became doubly virtuous; he personally held antislavery beliefs yet scrupulously exercised his judicial duties. The Dred Scott decision - rather than being an example of proslavery extremism, as Republicans had described it - thus became a reasonable, accurate interpretation of the Constitution."

Taney, in the Lost Cause portrayal, is re-imagined as an opponent of slavery who wrecked the Constitution and the Union out of pristine legal principle.

The reality was different. And part of the problem of just making up history to suit some ideology of the moment is that it can produce endless narrative tangles. The antiabortion movement today, which heavily overlaps with those attracted to neo-Confederate ideas and Lost Cause history, holds up the Dred Scott decision as an example of a terribly unjust Supreme Court decision, which they see as analogous to Roe v. Wade, which recognized women's Constitutionally protected right to abortion. In the sometimes genuinely weird world of extremist tribalism, "Dred Scott" becomes and over-determined substitute for legal abortion, calling for measures up to and including violence to prevent it. So defending the Lost Cause version of Taney's Dred Scott decision as Huebner describes it could be problematic for advocates of the Lost Cause today. Not that it would necessarily stop them from making the argument. Screaming contradictions in logical thought are less of a problem for the authoritarian-minded than for most other people.

But Huebner makes clear that Taney's early opposition to slavery wasn't isolated to the Gruber case. Taney in 1806 became the brother-in-law of Francis Scott Key, who would later write what is now our national anthem; Taney married his sister, Anne Phoebe Charlton Key. "Both Taney and Francis Scott Key jointed an antikidnapping society and developed reputations for their willingness to argue cases for the benefit of slaves and free blacks."

Without fully describing how Taney came into possession of his own slaves, Huebner relates that Taney freed 11 of the 13 of which he had possession. The two exceptions were two elderly ones, who he said were "too old, when they became my property, to provide for themselves." This is notable in that one of the arguments of proslavery apologists was that masters often freed slaves who had served the faithfully all their lives as a reward for the loyal service. What that usually meant in practice was that once slaves became so old and decrepit that they couldn't work anymore, the masters would free them to fend for themselves in their remaining time on earth. Not that a lot of slaves became elderly. Between overwork, abuse, inadequate nutrition and poor medical care, many of them died before reaching their 50s. Taney took the opposite approach in those two cases, it seems.

Huebner also recounts Taney's early stands as a politician on slavery-related issues:

Consistent with his other actions at this time, Taney voted in favor of limiting the growth of slavery as a member of the Maryland Senate between 1816 and 1821. Restricting slavery emerged as a question of national importance in 1819 when New York congressman James Tallmadge proposed gradual abolition as a condition of admitting Missouri as a state. Tallmadge’s plan, a tentative move against slavery, would have freed slaves born after statehood when they reached the age of twenty-five. Such a plan partially conformed to Taney’s ideas and practices regarding liberating slaves — he freed his female slaves at age twenty-five and typically freed his male slaves at age thirty. Congress spent months debating the status of slavery in Missouri, and the matter aroused deep passions in Taney’s home state. William Pinkney, a U.S. senator from Maryland and the state’s leading lawyer, took a particularly vocal stance against any restrictions on slavery in Missouri. As in many states, legislators in Maryland extensively discussed the matter. In 1820 a resolution came before the state senate providing that Missouri should be allowed to enter the Union without any restrictions regarding slavery. Taney defied proslavery leaders — including a senior member of the bar — by voting against the resolution. (It passed 9–5, despite Taney’s efforts.) The following year, when a resolution to repeal all Maryland laws "as prohibit the importation of slaves into this state" came before senators, Taney again stood with the minority (7–5) in opposing it. As a state senator at a time of fervent debate on the subject, Taney thus supported federal and state restrictions on the expansion of slavery. [my emphasis]
(Continued in Part 2)

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