- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2004

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday praised a predecessor, Roger Brooke Taney, as a great justice whose career was “unfortunately marred” by his opinion that slaves were property, not citizens.

Chief Justice Rehnquist made the remarks at a fund-raiser for the Historical Society of Frederick County after touring Taney’s restored home, which the society acquired last year. The society rededicated the property, which includes quarters for Taney’s eight slaves.

Taney, chief justice from 1836 to 1864, was the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which inflamed antislavery groups and became a catalyst for the Civil War. Writing for the seven-member majority, Taney wrote that even freed slaves and their descendants were not citizens and had no standing to sue in the federal courts. Taney also wrote that Congress could not forbid slavery in U.S. territories, overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, known for his conservative views, briefly mentioned Dred Scott in a speech that mainly recognized Taney’s advocacy of states’ rights.

“Taney’s long and otherwise admirable career is unfortunately marred by his opinion in the ill-starred Dred Scott case,” Chief Justice Rehnquist said.

“Because of his role in the Dred Scott case, history has judged Taney harshly,” Chief Justice Rehnquist said. “I want to be careful in — not in saying that our ideas are wrong, but saying that people in the past should necessarily have followed them.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist was more critical of Taney in his 1987 book, “The Supreme Court: How it Was, How it Is,” in which he called the Dred Scott decision “inexcusable.”

In particular, by holding an act of Congress unconstitutional, “the court made what must be judged to be a serious error by the standards of judicial conduct today, and to me seems inexcusable by even the somewhat laxer standards of that day,” Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote.

Taney’s two-story red brick house on the edge of downtown Frederick recently reopened for tours after some off-season changes to increase historical authenticity. A sculpture of Taney has been removed from the sitting room but a plaque honoring the home’s first preservationists and declaring the house a “national shrine” still hangs on the wall.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide