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August 23, 2015

Remember what else Taney did

John W. Ashbury

[Editor’s Note: This column first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in The Frederick News-Post on Saturday August 22, 2015.]


It seems that there is a move afoot, once again, to remove the bust of Chief Justice of the United States Roger Brooke Taney from its pedestal in Courthouse Square in front of Frederick City Hall. Early reports indicate that the Dred Scott decision of March 1857 is the root cause of this action.

Taney lived in Frederick for 25 years before moving his legal practice to Baltimore. While here, he was elected to the Maryland General Assembly and to the state Senate. He was a director of the State Bank Branch for five years and was elected to the board of Frederick County National Bank in 1818.

Following his move to Baltimore, he was elected attorney general of Maryland in 1827. He resigned to serve as acting secretary of war for President Andrew Jackson. He was then appointed by Jackson to be attorney general of the United States. In 1833, he became secretary of the treasury in a recess appointment, although the following year his appointment to this post was denied by the U.S. Senate, the first Cabinet nominee to be so rejected.

In January 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. He was never confirmed, and the position remained vacant for more than a year.

In July 1835, Chief Justice John Marshall died after a stagecoach accident. His position remained vacant until after the elections in November, in which the makeup of the U.S. Senate changed dramatically in Jackson’s favor.

On Dec. 28, 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to be chief justice. Taney was confirmed on March 15, 1836, and was sworn in that very day. During Taney’s tenure, the Supreme Court favored the power of the states over that of the federal government.

Taney decided to write the opinion in the Dred Scott case because at 80 years of age, he knew the backlash that would follow the decision and he sought to shield his fellow justices from the controversy even though the court voted 7-2 in holding that African- Americans, either slave or free, were not considered part of the U.S. Constitution because they were “of an inferior order.” The court had ruled many times during Taney’s tenure in consideration of the Constitution’s original intent.

There is little doubt that the Dred Scott decision led directly to the Civil War.

But how can we apply the laws and customs of today on the opinions of the Supreme Court 158 years ago? It is not only unfair to Taney but to the entire history of the Supreme Court.

Here in Frederick, we should continue to note the extraordinary accomplishments of this legal scholar. He administered the oath of office to more presidents than any other chief justice — eight, from Martin Van Buren to Abraham Lincoln. He served the Frederick community with honor and distinction. He served his legal client successfully, among them the Rev. Jacob Gruber, who was charged with sedition and incitement to revolt by slaves, and Aaron Burr in his trial for treason.

And how can we forget that Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Steven Breyer spoke in Frederick to support the restoration and maintenance of Taney’s home on South Bentz Street?

And finally, the dedication of the bust on Sept. 26, 1931, was the first national radio broadcast of any kind. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was the keynote speaker.

We must remember the good that people do. Taney’s record of accomplishments far outweighs a single decision of his court — even though that decision is today remembered as the only thing he ever did.

If we remove his bust from public display, will there be a move to dig up his grave in St. John’s Cemetery and move his remains out of Frederick as well?


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