- - Tuesday, August 18, 2015


The three aldermen from Frederick, Md., who voted to expel the bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney from their city hall should review Taney’s role in Maryland and U.S. history.

At 18, Taney graduated with honors from Dickinson College. He was admitted the Maryland bar and elected to the legislature in 1799 as a Federalist. In 1816, he won a state senate seat as a Democratic Republican (today’s Democratic Party). He became a staunch supporter of populist Democrat Andrew Jackson (the Bernie Sanders of 1824, perhaps?), who was elected president. Taney was elected Maryland attorney general but left to become the U.S. attorney general under Jackson. In 1833, as secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Taney stopped depositing federal money into the Second Bank of the United States. This shut down a bank Jackson believed benefited the wealthy and harmed poor farmers.

Early in life, Taney freed the slaves he inherited from his father and he provided monthly pensions for the older slaves until their deaths. Jackson nominated him as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and Taney was confirmed in 1836. He and other Jackson nominees opposed what they saw as federal overreach. The 1841 ruling by Taney and six other justices in the Amistad case freed 39 enslaved Africans who had been on the Spanish ship.

By its 7-2 ruling in Dred Scott, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition of slavery in part of the Louisiana Purchase. Taney noted, “The Government of the United States had no right to interfere for any other purpose but that of protecting the rights of the [slave] owner.” Abolitionists were furious. The decision probably further fueled the hatred abolitionists had for Roman Catholics; Taney was a Roman Catholic. Democrats characterized Republicans as encouraging disunion by refusing to accept the Supreme Court’s decision as the law of the land. When debating Lincoln, Democrat Stephen Douglas said: “Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States, because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience to the decisions in that court — to the final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our Constitution.”

In 1861, in his dual capacity as a U.S. circuit judge, Taney ruled for Marylander John Merryman, the first person arrested under President Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding the military to bring Merryman before him. Gen. George Cadwalader, the commanding officer at Fort McHenry, refused. Taney then ruled the suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional because the writ couldn’t be suspended without an Act of Congress.

Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote in 2005, “The case is largely remembered today for Lincoln’s refusal to abide by Taney’s holding, but it can serve as an example of judicial respect for civil liberties in times of war.”



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