|Chief Justice Roger Taney (1777-1864)|
Taney's decision not only allowed slaveowners to bring their human property into a free state and retain possession of it. He also declared that the Constitution adopted the following view of Americans of African descent, both slave and free:
They had for more than a century before been regarded 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; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. .. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. [my emphasis]As Timothy Heubner notes in the article cited below, "More significant in the context of the debate over the extension of slavery, Taney held that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in federal territories, thus putting the Court squarely on the side of slaveholders."
Taney was a successful attorney who became active in Maryland politics, becoming state attorney general in 1827. He aligned himself with the Jacksonian Democrats. President Andrew Jackson brought him into his Cabinet in 1831 as national Attorney General, where Taney became a leading figure in Jackson's successful fight against the Bank of the United States, which the Jacksonians with good reasons regarded as a major facilitator of concentration of wealth. Jackson appointed him Secretary of the Treasury in 1834, but he became the first Presidential Cabinet nominee Congress from whom Congress withheld its approval. Conservatives like Daniel Webster considered him too radical a foe of the Money Power to take that post. But Jackson appointed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Senate approved him; he began his long service as Chief Justice in 1836.
Timothy Huebner takes a look at a far less familiar aspect of Taney's career in "Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond — and before — Dred Scott" The Journal of American History (June 2010).
Huebner explains that post-Civil War defenders of Justice Taney used statements from his antislavery period to argue that he had always been opposed to slavery. And that his infamous opinion in Dred Scott "represented a strictly legal decision that went against his own beliefs." Huebner shows in his article how "Taney's beliefs about slavery changed substantially over the decades [and] that he changed from a moderately antislavery lawyer into a zealous proslavery judge."
Taney's reputation as a critic of slavery rested especially on a 1819 case that Huebner describes this way:
While establishing his career as a lawyer and serving as a Federalist political leader, Taney had defended Rev. Jacob Gruber, who had been indicted for preaching a sermon that allegedly disturbed the peace and promoted rebellion. During that 1819 trial, Taney made impassioned statements against the peculiar institution that stand in stark contrast to those penned by the “angry southern gentleman” in the Dred Scott decision. In a speech to the jury, Taney described slavery as "a blot on our national character" and insisted that "every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away."But this was not an isolated incident, an attorney merely making a zealous case for his client. Taney married Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, the sister of Francis Scott Key, in 1806 and they were active for years in "a circle of young, reform-minded Marylanders who sought to protect free blacks from kidnapping and alleviate the harshness of slavery." Huebner writes, "Although slave cases never constituted a significant portion of his practice and the fragmentary nature of the evidence reveals little about his motives, it is clear that Taney occasionally worked to secure for African Americans the limited benefits that Maryland law afforded them."
I've discussed the colonization movement and its contradictory nature in two posts this year. Huebner writes, "Taney also actively supported the colonization of African Americans, a cause that he viewed as a step toward emancipation." (my emphasis) He and Francis Scott Key organized a Maryland chapter of the American Colonization Society. Taney also took antislavery positions in his political career, including antislavery votes in his time as a Maryland state senator - a minority position within the state legislature. While his fondness for colonization wasn't inconsistent with hostility toward blacks and even support, his other positions on slavery in that period show that Taney's public view was antislavery.
But even as early as 1821, he also began arguing cases on behalf of slaveowners arguing against the freedom of their human property. And Huebner relates:
... as Maryland attorney general he defended a notorious slave trader before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1827. As U.S. attorney general under President Andrew Jackson, Taney provided glimpses of the stance he would take in the Dred Scott decision, particularly regarding the question of whether African Americans had been included in the political community at the writing of the Constitution. In 1832, he authored an official opinion on the constitutionality of a South Carolina statute that provided that black seamen who arrived in Charleston were subject to arrest and confinement while their ship remained in port. Written for the secretary of state, Taney’s opinion referred to African Americans as members of a "degraded class." Whatever limited rights African Americans possessed, Taney argued, came from the states, who legitimately conferred or withdrew those privileges based on “the sufferance of the white population." Maintaining white control over black liberties also helped prevent "the evils of insurrection and rebellion."But Huebner also notes:
Notably, Taney continued his personal activities on behalf of African Americans at this time and retained a reputation as a friend to enslaved blacks seeking to buy their freedom. As late as 1839, the abolitionist James G. Birney relayed to one of his colleagues what had been told to him by a slave whom Taney had assisted in this manner: Taney "was considered by the colored people of Baltimore as one of their steadiest and surest friends—and that his temper toward them never failed to manifest itself on all proper occasions where money was to be raised for their assistance or improvement."In the end, Huebner winds up explaining Taney's shift from a seemingly dedicated antislavery position in young adulthood to a hardline, reactionary defender of slavery in the later years of his life as a matter of intellectual history:
Roger Taney's odyssey from antislavery lawyer to proslavery justice mirrored larger currents in American political and constitutional development. Having come of age during the founding era, Taney possessed an early nineteenth-century brand of antislavery that began to evaporate during the 1830s. The rise of the immediatist abolitionist movement, with its emphasis on moral purity and revolutionary change, significantly altered the nature of the political debate over slavery. During the early nineteenth century, an amalgam of antislavery societies existed throughout the upper South and border states, and national political leaders vigorously and openly discussed ways to restrict the growth of the peculiar institution. Abolitionists' uncompromising rhetoric forced antislavery opinion from the mainstream to the margins, as more moderate antislavery advocates — particularly in slaveholding states — felt forced to defend themselves against charges of extremism. This development silenced some of slavery’s opponents and nudged others toward a more proslavery stance, thus circumscribing the national political debate on the subject.But his description of the process doesn't clearly lead to such a conclusion.
Ronald Reagan like to pitch himself to Democratic voters by using some version of the line, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." In fact, Reagan's political positions just became more conservative over his lifetime, not entirely coincidentally with his acquisition of wealth via his relationships with the owners and executives of the Hollywood film industry. But that line was a recognition that there were not only people who had voted for the Democratic Party out of habit whose views had changed along the lines of his own evolution. It also recognized that Southern segregationists to whom he and the Republican Party were actively courting had developed a long-standing affiliation to the Democratic Party, which in the Deep South was for decades a segregationist party.
Huebner's conclusion just quoted could be summarized as, Taney didn't leave the antislavery movement, the antislavery movement left him.
The Jacksonian Democratic Party of the 19th century underwent a major evolution on race- and slavery-related issues. One trend, the Jacksonian trend with which this blog identifies, developed the democratic and egalitarian side of the Jacksonian political heritage, including antislavery. The other side of the Democratic Party that was the favored party of slaveholders developed in the direction of John Calhoun, the Democratic nullifier and seditionist who Jackson himself regarded from the time of the Nullification Controversy to his death as a traitor to America and an enemy of democratic government. That latter trend, which emphasized the defense of slavery at all costs, was the one with which Taney came to identify.
And Huebner's explanation of Taney's choices in that process earlier in the article seems to describe it better than his actual conclusion:
At this time , Taney embraced the party of Andrew Jackson, a slave-owning Tennessean who built a southern-dominated political party that focused on the rights of slaveholders and the prerogative of states. Over the next several years the Democratic party supported slavery and white supremacy in a variety of ways — from its Indian removal policy to its eventual stance in favor of the annexation of Texas. As an official of the Jackson administration, Taney ceased to think of slavery solely from the perspective of a small-town Maryland lawyer and instead began to reason and act as a representative of the president and his party. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 gave Taney further cause to reconsider his views on slavery and black rights. The revolt prompted a nearly universal response of fear and dread on the part of white southerners, who became more mindful of the threat of uprising and increasingly vigilant about maintaining racial control.In the process, Taney decided that defending slavery was more important to him than defending democracy. This is the opposite of what Jackson himself decided when confronted with the Nullification Crisis. He decided to defend American democracy and national unity against the South Carolina slaveholders, when his personal and class interest at the moment would have pressured him to pander to the pro-slavery position that was fundamental to South Carolina's defiance. Taney made a different series of choices. It worth noting here what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in his 1945 classic, The Age of Jackson. Taney was Jackson's Attorney General at the time of the Nullification Controversy in 1832-3. Jackson's December, 1832 Proclamation to the People of South Carolina defended the supremacy of the federal governnment against South Carolina's and John Calhoun's "states rights" claims. It also defended the notion of American patriotism as allegiance to the country and to democracy. Schlesinger writes, "Many years later, after guns had boomed over Sumter, Taney declared that he had not seem the proclamation until it was in print and that he disapproved some of its principles." Yes, even before 1861 Taney had clearly come to disapprove of the principle in Jackson's Proclamation that American patriots could never put the defense of slavery above the Constitution and national unity.
Starting with the 1940s, Huebner writes, "No record of personal activities by Taney on behalf of slaves exists for this period, and the legal evidence indicates a purely proslavery position." In his Supreme Court decisions leading up to Dred Scott, "Taney went beyond his colleagues in compiling a solidly proslavery record. In each instance Taney preserved slaveholders' rights by ensuring that states maintained control of slavery." Huebner quotes from an 1857 letter Taney wrote to illustrate that by that time, the Chief Justice had embraced "full-blown extremism" on slavery and race. Taney wrote in that letter, "In the greater number of cases that have come under my observation, freedom has been a serious misfortune to the manumitted slave; and he has most commonly brought upon himself privations and sufferings which he would not have been called on to endure in a state of slavery." He had abandoned his belief that a person of African descent had any right to freedom at all.
That's why I find it surprising that, after citing all this evidence, Huebner concludes, "Taney’s changing views show that he was both a product and a proponent of this shifting discourse about slavery." That formulation is vague enough to be plausible by not saying much. The more straighforward interpretation would seem to be that Taney decided to start defending the interests of slaveowners and actively opposing the interests of slaves and even of democracy as it existed among American whites.
Note: I also discussed this article in two posts in the 2012 series for April 27 and April 28.
Tags: confederate heritage month 2013, dred scott decision, roger taney, slavery