Roger Brooke Taney

1777-1864

 

Born: March 17, 1777 in Calvert County, Maryland, United States

Died: October 12, 1864 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States

Occupation: Judge

Table of Contents: Awards | Biographical Essay | Further Readings | Source Citation

During his tenure as Chief Justice of the United States for twenty-eight years, Taney successfully used his considerable talents to adjust the law to the new egalitarian political and economic currents and states' rights concerns of Jacksonian democracy, while preserving the essentials of both property rights and the authority of the federal government. In dealing with the volatile issue of the expansion of slavery in the territories, Taney also sought moderation until the Dred Scott case, when he unsuccessfully attempted to resolve judicially what Congress and the president were unable to decide legislatively.

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

Early Life

Roger Brooke Taney, third of seven children, was born in Calvert County in southern Maryland on the Patuxent River, March 17, 1777. His father, Michael Taney, was from an old Maryland planter family of some wealth and had been educated in Europe. His mother, née Monica Brooke, was the daughter of another distinguished Maryland planter family. Michael Taney, though hot-tempered and impatient, loved his children and took great interest in their upbringing. Monica Taney was a pious and gentle person of little education, always willing to give help to anyone in need, including slaves. Roger Taney apparently learned from her solicitude for American blacks.

Taney attended a local school, a boarding school, and then for several years he and the other Taney children studied at home under David English, a tutor and graduate of Princeton hired by their father. At age fifteen, Taney was sent off to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he studied and lived with the difficult but brilliant Dr. Charles Nisbit, president of the college. In the spring of 1795, Taney passed the oral examination required for graduation and was voted valedictorian by his classmates. It was an honor he had wanted but did not relish achieving. Public speaking was difficult for Taney throughout his life, upsetting his somewhat delicate health and often leaving him worn out and ill for days. Taney was a thin, flat-chested youth with thick black hair, solemn eyes, and a face that showed much character but was not handsome. Like his mother, he was painfully shy, but those who learned to know him found a warm and friendly personality with an engaging and penetrating intellect. Taney had a gift for stating the difficult in clear, simple language, which served him well in his profession.

From 1796 to 1799, Taney clerked in the office of a prominent Annapolis judge. During this time, he made friends with Francis Scott Key, later famous for his poem "The Star-Spangled Banner." After being admitted to the bar in 1799, Taney tried practicing in several locations, but because of insufficient business, he moved to Frederick, Maryland, in March of 1801, where he remained for the next twenty years. Frederick was a small town of three thousand, but there were old family friends and relatives in the vicinity. Taney accepted all types of cases and was soon the most prominent lawyer in the area. In 1803, he was a candidate for the Maryland state legislature, but lost. During this time, he courted Anne Key, sister of his friend Francis Scott Key, who lived nearby at Terra Ruba, the Key family estate. By 1805, he was secure enough financially to propose, and they were married, January 6, 1806. Anne Taney was a kind and tranquil person who soothed Taney when his nerves were frayed, nursed him when his health was bad, and was a great comfort to him all their married life. Six daughters and a son, who died in infancy, were born to the Taneys.

Although a respectable stalwart in Maryland Federalist circles, Taney leaned toward more flexible democratic ideals, a tendency that the War of 1812 accentuated. Taney led a dissenting prowar faction nicknamed the "Coodies." His popularity with the voters increased as a result, and he was elected to the Maryland senate in 1816, where he served until 1821. During these years, partly as a result of his Southern plantation heritage, Taney opposed the second Bank of the United States, particularly after the economic slump of 1819, which was widely blamed on the bank. He welcomed the bank's power to provide regulation of state banks but opposed what he perceived as its excessive power and privilege. Taney also became involved in projects to aid American blacks. He was no abolitionist but did believe that slavery was an unfortunate institution and should be ended someday. He supported the African colonization movement for free blacks and measures to protect free blacks from unscrupulous slavers who would kidnap them for sale as slaves in the lower South, freed his own slaves, and was always kind and attentive to their interests. Yet while he agreed that slavery must be ended, he believed that it must be done slowly and solely by the actions of the individual states. He was deeply concerned all his life that the federal government would intrude and end slavery abruptly and destroy the South.

By 1823, when Taney was forty-six, he had acquired a statewide legal reputation and an increasing amount of business requiring him to be in Baltimore. To advance his career, he sold his practice and home and moved to Baltimore. Taney's success, however, was atypical. In an era in which public speaking was judged by style and the ability to quote from great literature, he spoke without gestures or emphasis, in a low voice, simply, earnestly, and without apparent artfulness. The effect, coming from the frail, stooped figure in black, ill-fitting clothes, with a long solemn face, was considerable. He had many wealthy clients, and by 1827, he was so well-known that the governor selected him for the prestigious post of state attorney general. He held the post and continued his private practice until 1831.

Life's Work

After the collapse of the Federalist Party and the adoption of many Federalist ideas by the Jeffersonians during the Era of Good Feelings, Taney drifted into the Democratic Party. In 1824, he supported the election of Andrew Jackson but was not active in the campaign. His former Federalist associates, who had not forgiven Taney for leading the Coodies, generally supported John Quincy Adams and his program, which favored commercial and financial interests over agriculture. Taney could not agree with them and by 1826 headed the Maryland Central Committee to elect Jackson in the 1828 election. When the Peggy Eaton Affair made the split in Jackson's cabinet impossible, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren maneuvered to get the entire cabinet to resign and President Jackson to appoint a new one. The United States attorney generalship was offered to Taney, who accepted. It did not pay well, and Taney had not wanted a position with the government, but he decided that he should accept.

Taney gained national prominence and notoriety in Jackson's cabinet over his role in the Bank War. When a law was passed in Congress renewing the charter of the second Bank of the United States, Taney recommended that Jackson veto it; Jackson agreed, and Taney wrote the constitutional portion of Jackson's veto message. Taney was convinced that the bank meant to put state banks out of business and dominate the American economy. Jackson had similar suspicions. The probank interests in Congress, which were primarily members of the Whig Party, were furious with Taney and in June of 1834 refused to confirm him as secretary of the treasury when Jackson appointed him to that post.

Taney returned to Baltimore to resume his law practice. Jackson kept seeking his advice and offering him various official positions, which Taney refused until he was offered an associate justice position on the Supreme Court. In January of 1835, the Whigs in the Senate once again blocked Taney's confirmation. In July of 1835, Chief Justice John Marshall died, and President Jackson, determined to find a place in government for Taney, nominated him as Marshall's successor. After the fall election, a new, more favorable Congress was sitting, and this time Taney was confirmed, on March 15, 1836.

As Chief Justice of the United States, Taney brought change to the Supreme Court. When riding circuit, he ended the custom of giving long lectures to grand juries on the philosophy of American law and government. Federalist judges had often turned such lectures into political speeches against the Democratic Party. He also ended the custom of wearing small clothes (knee breeches) under judicial robes and wore ordinary trousers instead. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837), his first important constitutional case, Taney gave notice of a change of emphasis from the supremacy of national law toward states' rights. The case involved the constitutional provision barring states from altering the obligations in a contract. The Marshall court had interpreted this clause strictly to protect property rights, including even implied obligations. Taney was not hostile to property rights or the contract clause of thethe but thought Marshall's interpretation too extreme and believed that an implied obligation should not prohibit state legislatures from exercising their best judgment on behalf of the general welfare and to promote progress. In other cases, Taney made it clear that the Marshall doctrine on the supremacy of national law to control interstate commerce would not be destroyed, only amended to allow some state involvement. While Taney distrusted the power of great aggregations of wealth in corporate form and believed that the state needed some authority to police such power, he also recognized the advantages to the American economy of the corporations' success and the need for the Court to protect their interests in the American economic system.

Taney was not the dominating figure on the Court that Marshall had been. It was not because he lacked the brilliance, but because he chose to operate in a more collegial fashion and because the Taney court had a greater diversity of political philosophy than did Marshall's. It sometimes proved impossible for the Court to arrive at a consensus. It is perhaps the mark of his ability that he achieved agreement as often as he did in times that were racked by sectionalism and the changes brought by the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

The most troublesome issue for the Court was slavery. The issue reached the Court in the form of questions concerning nonpayment for slaves brought illegally into a state, whether slaves who had overpowered a ship's crew and sailed to a Northern port were free men or still slaves to be returned to their owners, and free black sailors on English ships who were locked up while their ship was docked in Charleston. These cases were slowly dragging the Supreme Court into the sectional conflicts over slavery when the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) came before the Court and sped up the process. Justice Joseph Story, writing for the majority, which did not include Taney, declared a Pennsylvania law unconstitutional because it interfered with a federal power. The state law would make free persons of slaves who could reach the state's territory, which conflicted with the national government's responsibility to see fugitive slaves returned to their proper owners. Story went on, however, to declare that federal power over the matter was exclusive. Taney disagreed because he did not want to discourage those states willing to help, nor did he like the implications for Congress. Soon, many Northern states made it illegal for their state and local officials to give any aid to federal officers attempting to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Law. The Southern states then asked Congress to consider the problem and enact a stronger law, the very action Taney had feared. Any congressional attempt to cope with the problem could only increase North-South friction. Taney was aware that if the friction increased too much, the South would be likely to attempt secession. He believed that if slavery remained strictly a state issue, a North-South confrontation could be avoided, and the South would then have the time necessary to end it slowly, without massive disruption. This appears to be the motivation behind his generally misunderstood and infamous Dred Scott decision.

There had been several attempts to get the Supreme Court to rule on the federal government's power to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories. The issue came squarely before the Court in 1857 in the Dred Scott case. The specific issue was whether Dred Scott, a slave, had been made a free man when his master took him first to a free state and then to a territory free of slavery because of the Missouri Compromise. There was enormous political pressure put on the Court to resolve what neither the president nor Congress wanted to touch. At first, the Court tried to dodge the issue and decide the case on the narrow grounds that in returning voluntarily with his master to Missouri, Dred Scott reconfirmed his status as a slave, and, since slaves had no right to sue in court, the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction. This would have meant a low key opinion. Justice Louis McLean, however, hoping to be nominated by the newly formed Republican Party for president, insisted on writing a dissenting opinion to advertise his position that Congress had the authority to decide whether slavery could exist in a territory and that the Missouri Compromise was constitutional.

Taney felt impelled by McLean's improvident action to answer for the Court's majority. Taney reasoned that the South's and the Union's security required that the Court declare that slaves were property and not persons, that property could not sue in court, that Congress had no authority to allow a kind of property--in this case slaves--in one part of the American territories while making it illegal in the rest of the territories, that this meant the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress was obliged by thethe to protect all forms of property in all parts of the territories equally. Because theConstitution recognized the institution of slavery and the Court was bound by theConstitution, no other decision on these issues was possible.

The uproar in the North over the Court's decision, however, was enormous. The seven majority justices were bitterly vilified as the vicious minions of slavocracy, especially Taney. The abolitionists, the Free-Soilers, and the Republicans perceived the Missouri Compromise as a proof of the power of Congress over slavery in the territories, and its constitutionality was central to their case against the expansion of slavery in the territories. The Dred Scott decision left their whole political platform in a constitutional shambles. Taney did not reply to his critics, and his friends were unable and unequal to the task. The prestige of the Court collapsed and the federal government was now virtually helpless to resolve the conflict over slavery in a manner acceptable to both North and South. Taney was impressed and encouraged by President Abraham Lincoln's conciliatory inaugural address, but the South greeted it with secession.

Taney was an old, sick man when the Civil War began, and his last years were difficult; his wife had died in 1855, few members of the Lincoln Administration had anything but scorn for him, and the press continued to vilify his decisions. He continued, though, to insist that thethe be honored even in war. When he issued a writ of habeas corpus to force the army to release John Merryman, a prominent Marylander arrested for suspected secessionist activities, he was in fact declaring President Lincoln's suspension of the writ unconstitutional. When the matter was finally decided by a Republican Court after Taney's death, Taney was fully vindicated and an important new rule of law was established. There were other attempts by Taney to restrain the federal government's exercise of arbitrary power, and each time, Taney was attacked by the press and rebuffed by the executive branch of the government. Yet he continued and also drafted opinions on important constitutional principles likely to come up in cases before the Court. In the fall of 1864, a chronic intestinal disorder from which he had suffered for some years became acute and violently painful. With his mind clear until the end and two of his daughters by him, he died October 12, at 10:00 P.M. As he had requested, the funeral service was a quiet and modest affair, all the more so because most Republican cabinet officers refused to attend.

Summary

Taney was a man of modest tastes, but his intellect and strength of character made of him a judicial statesman of the highest order. Before Dred Scott, even his critics respected him, and some, such as Henry Clay, even came to admire him. As chief justice, he first dedicated himself to restraining the concentrations of financial, commercial, and industrial power that threatened to dominate and plunder the agricultural majority. He was neither radical nor doctrinaire in his judicial philosophy. The Marshall Court's doctrines protecting inalienable rights were not destroyed and even became stronger in being adapted to the changing economic conditions of the industrial revolution.

As the sectional conflict over slavery increased, Taney perceived its potential threat to the South and to the Union. He hoped to keep Congress from assuming any authority over slavery to avoid tempting the North to force its views on the South. Should the North attempt coercion, Taney could conceive of only two possible results: Either the North would succeed and the South be destroyed, or the South would choose secession and rupture with the Union. Both alternatives could be avoided if the slave states were allowed the time necessary to find their own means of ending their peculiar institution, a development to which he was sympathetic and that he considered inevitable. The Dred Scott decision became the means by which Taney attempted to carry out these ideas, but only after Justice McLean insisted on publishing his contrary beliefs. Here Taney may have made an error in strategy. It might have been better for the Court to ignore McLean and keep to the original narrowly based decision. It is unlikely, however, that it would have made any difference. The political moderates who had achieved the compromises of 1820 and 1850 had been too far reduced in number by 1857 to support the Court's solution.

AWARDS

Areas of Achievement:
Law

FURTHER READINGS

Baxter, Maurice G. One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union. Harvard University Press, 1984.
A superb, in-depth biography of one of Taney's most formidable political opponents, who frequently argued cases before the Supreme Court during much of Taney's time as chief justice. Provides a different view of the Taney years on the Court
Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. Oxford University Press, 1978.
This excellent example of historical writing is a serious and detailed scholarly account of the Dred Scott case, with considerable attention given to the whole range of issues facing the United States on the eve of the Civil War
Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. Simon and Schuster, 1973.
A readable yet scholarly history of American law from Colonial times to 1900, with a short epilogue on the twentieth century. Mentions the impact of the Taney Court, but there is very little about Taney personally
Horwitz, Morton J. The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Harvard University Press, 1977.
Probably the best single volume on the history of American law of the era yet written. Emphasis is on the transformation of English law in the Colonies into a modern national legal system and how this transformation aided economic development. Mentions Taney only briefly
Hyman, Harold M.; William Wiecek. Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835-1875. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982.
A thorough and scholarly treatment of constitutional history from 1835 to 1875. The early chapters include discussions of the decisions of the Taney Court
Kelly, Alfred H.; Winfred A. Harbison; Herman Belz. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 6. W. W. Norton and Co, 1983.
An excellent single-volume constitutional history of the United States. Emphasis on cultural and historical influences. Includes mention of Taney and the Supreme Court's decisions during his tenure as chief justice, but covers little of his personal life
Kutler, Stanley I. Privilege and Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case. J. B. Lippincott Co, 1971.
An excellent short discussion of the Charles River Bridge case, its background, and Taney's reasons for the decision. Little concern for Taney's personal life
Newmyer, R. Kent. The Supreme Court Under Marshall and Taney. Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1968.
A succinct but thorough and perceptive study of the Taney Court in the context of the people and events of the times. The Taney chapters concentrate on his tenure as chief justice
Swisher, Carl Brent. Roger B. Taney. Macmillan Co, 1935.
This is the only scholarly biography of Taney, and, although dated, it is very well-done and useful. The author explains Taney's constitutional principles within the context of his experience and heritage

Source Citation: "Roger Brooke Taney." DISCovering U.S. History. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. From Richard L. Hillard, "Roger Brooke Taney." Great Lives from History, Frank N. Magill, ed. American Series, Vol. 5. Salem Press, 1987. Discovering Collection. Thomson Gale. 23 April 2007 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/DC>

Document Number: CD2104101109