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July 19, 2007

The Wrong Direction

John W. Ashbury

Revisionist history curdles the mind. Examples of how we interpret our past in the mindset of today are so very numerous because "political correctness" has invaded our society to the point of being ridiculous.

A recent example here in Frederick is the remarks of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who interpreted the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 in light of today's morals and societal evolution. His comments were almost in direct opposition to those made by the late Chief Justice of The United States, William Rehnquist, who spoke to the same group a few years ago.

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who resided in Frederick for more than two decades in the early 19th Century, headed a court that did not make law. Rather, the rulings by his court were anchored in the law of the land as passed by Congress and held constitutional by the court.

But, today, some citizens, who have grown up with Supreme Courts that did, in fact, make law - not all of which were bad, want to change our history. These courts have allowed our society to become more tolerant of its diversities. And that is a good thing.

But, to condemn Justice Taney for upholding the law of the land at the time this one decision was made is just plain wrong. Perhaps, if the Dred Scott Decision had come down on the side of Mr. Scott, a slave who had been removed by his owner to a non-slave state and the returned to a slave state, perhaps the Civil War would never have occurred.

That conflict, pitting brother against brother and fathers against sons, ended a lot more than slavery in the United States. Though it has taken nearly a century and a half, it has forged a more unified nation. We can now say with pride "Don't Tread On Me," or else.

We are still a diversified country, with divergent opinions on just about everything. But let someone attack us, then look out. We will put our differences aside and strike back as one.

There is a move afoot today to have the bust of Justice Taney removed from the lawn in front of what is now Frederick's City Hall. It could spawn a new "civil" war if those raising the ruckus aren't careful.

When it was dedicated on September 26, 1931, then-Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes unveiled the bust in the first national radio broadcast of any event. Maryland Gov. Albert Ritchie accepted it on "behalf of the people of Maryland." It has stood the test of time, the elements and pigeons. Thousands have been spent over the past 76 years to maintain it.

Now a small group of representatives of African American organizations cite the Dred Scott Decision as cause enough to remove Taney's bust from public ground. They suggest it be removed to the Taney Museum on South Bentz Street, which is privately owned. But, isn't that property located in the heart of Frederick's traditional black community?

Will they next seek the demolition of the Washington Monument on South Mountain? Will Thomas Johnson's home on North Market Street be torn down? Will they also want the Johnson bust in front of City Hall removed as well? Will the federal government be petitioned to remove all of our founding fathers from our currency because they, too, owned slaves?

When statewide African American advocacy groups raised objections to the life-sized Taney statue outside the State House in Annapolis, the legislature directed than an appropriate space be set aside for recognition of the achievements of African American leaders. From that action, the tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall in Lawyers Mall was created.

Instead of trying to erase the facts of history and ignore events that shaped our state and nation, why not embrace our diversity and acknowledge that which makes us great?

Justice Taney, long before he left Frederick, freed his own slaves and even provided those too old to continue working with a pension. After his father was killed in an 1820 riding accident, he and his brother freed the slaves they inherited from the senior Taney's estate. This certainly would be evidence that Justice Taney did not hold with slavery.

Yet, he is condemned for writing the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case. Justice Taney was old at the time and he realized that whoever wrote the decision would be condemned no mater which way the court ruled. So, when the justices decided 7-2 to uphold the laws of the country as written, he took the burden unto himself.

No amount of wishing that Chief Justice Taney and his court had ruled differently will make it so. The energy and passion driving some in our community to alter historical events and to sweep our ancestors under the rug might be better spent elevating the accomplishments of those succeeding generations that helped to alter our national viewpoint.

Having never suffered from the "slings and arrows" of prejudice as have our African American brothers and sisters, it is hard to really understand the personal heartache and anguish they feel.

We must move forward correcting our ills as we go; but we cannot do so by applying today's standards to another day and time. That would be just as wrong as the Dred Scott Decision is when judged in the light of the 21st Century.

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