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Roger Brooke Taney
Roger B. Taney

5th Chief Justice of the United States
In office
March 15, 1836[1] – October 12, 1864
Nominated by Andrew Jackson
Preceded by John Marshall
Succeeded by Salmon P. Chase

12th United States Secretary of the Treasury
In office
September 23, 1833 – June 25, 1834
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by William John Duane
Succeeded by Levi Woodbury

11th United States Attorney General
In office
July 20, 1831 – November 14, 1833
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by John M. Berrien
Succeeded by Benjamin Franklin Butler

Born March 17, 1777(1777-03-17)
Calvert County, Maryland, U.S.
Died October 12, 1864 (aged 87)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political party Federalist, Democrat
Spouse(s) Anne Arnold Phoebe Charlton Key Taney (sister of Francis Scott Key)
Alma mater Dickinson College[2]
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Judge
Religion Roman Catholic
Signature Roger B. Taney's signature

Roger Brooke Taney (Template:Pron-en Template:Respell; March 17, 1777 – October 12, 1864) was the fifth Chief Justice of the United States, holding that office from 1836 until his death in 1864, and was the first Roman Catholic to hold that office or indeed sit on the Supreme Court of the United States. He was also the eleventh United States Attorney General. He is most remembered for delivering the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), that ruled, among other things, that African Americans, being considered "of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race" at the time the Constitution was drafted, could not be considered citizens of the United States.

Described by his and President Andrew Jackson's critics as ". . . stooped, sallow, ugly . . . [a] supple, cringing tool of Jacksonian power,"[3] Taney was a believer in states' rights but also the Union; a slaveholder who regretted the institution and manumitted his slaves.[4] From Frederick, Maryland, he had practiced law and politics simultaneously and succeeded in both. After abandoning Federalism as a losing cause, he rose to the top of the state's Jacksonian machine. As U.S. Attorney General (1831–1833) and then Secretary of the Treasury (1833–1834), he became one of Andrew Jackson's closest advisers.

". . . He brought to the Chief Justiceship a high intelligence and legal acumen, kindness and humility, patriotism, and a determination to be a great Chief Justice that enabled him to mold the modest raw material of the Court into an effective and prestigious institution."[5]

Taney died during the final months of the American Civil War on the same day that his home state of Maryland abolished slavery.

Early life and career[]

Taney was born March 17, 1777, the second son of an aristocratic, slaveholding family of tobacco planters in Calvert County, Maryland. He received the rudiments of a classical education from a private tutor and at the age of 15 entered Dickinson College, graduating with honors in 1795. As a younger son with no prospect of inheriting the family estate, young Taney chose the profession of law. In 1799 he was admitted to the bar, and quickly distinguished himself as one of Maryland's most promising young lawyers. He married Anne Key on Jan. 7, 1806, and eventually fathered seven children.

In 1799, the same year he began practicing as an attorney, Taney was elected to the Maryland state legislature, where he served one term as a Federalist; several years of private practice, he was elected a state Senator in 1816, serving until 1821 - this time as a Democrat, since the Federalist party had dissolved. When the 1824 presidential election divided the Democratic Party between supporters and opponents of Andrew Jackson, Taney became a staunch Jacksonian. He was then elected Attorney General of Maryland in 1827, but resigned in 1831 to accept now President Jackson's nomination as Attorney General of the United States.

Jackson Administration[]

Among Taney's opinions as attorney general, two revealed his stand on slavery: one supported South Carolina's law prohibiting free Blacks from entering the state, and one argued that Blacks could not be citizens. In 1833, as secretary of the Treasury, Taney ordered an end to the deposit of Federal money in the Second Bank of the United States, an act which killed the institution.

Treasury nomination[]

Taney was the first nominee to the United States Executive Cabinet to be rejected by the United States Senate when his recess appointment as Secretary of the Treasury failed in a vote of 28-18.[6] Rather than return to the position of Attorney General, however, Taney returned to Maryland and resumed private practice.

Supreme Court nominations[]

In January 1835 Jackson, in defiance of the Senate's rejection of Taney as Treasury Secretary, nominated Taney as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Gabriel Duvall. The Senate was scheduled to vote on Taney's confirmation on the closing day of the session that month, but the anti-Jackson Whigs who dominated the Senate blocked the vote and introduced a motion to abolish the open seat on the Court. The latter was unsuccessful, but the Whigs succeeded in preventing Taney's confirmation to the Court. (The seat was then left open for over a year until Philip Pendleton Barbour was confirmed to it in 1836.)

Two factors intervened to help Taney onto the Court, however: The forthcoming session of Congress would find Jackson's Democrats in control of the Senate after the 1834 elections; and, during the 1835 recess, Chief Justice John Marshall died following a stage coach accident. Jackson sent the nomination of Taney as Chief Justice to the Senate when it convened in December; after a long and bitter battle with considerable opposition from Whig leaders Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Jackson's former Vice President John C. Calhoun, Taney was confirmed on March 15, 1836 and received his commission the same day.

The Taney Court, 1836–1864[]

Unlike Marshall, who had supported a broad role for the federal government in the area of economic regulation, Taney and the other justices appointed by Jackson more often favored the power of the states. In a series of Commerce Clause cases exemplified by Mayor of the City of New York v. Miln (1837), wherein the challenged New York statute required masters of incoming ships to report information on all passengers they brought into the country, i.e. age, health, last legal residence, etc. The question before the Taney court was whether or not the state statute undercut Congress's authority to regulate commerce; or was it a police measure, as New York claimed, fully within the authority of the state. Taney and his colleagues sought to devise a more nuanced means of accommodating competing federal and state claims of regulatory power. The Court ruled in favor of New York.

The Taney Court also presided over the case of the Spanish schooner Amistad. Fellow Justice Joseph Story wrote the Court's decision and opinion. Taney sided with Story's opinion but left no written record of his own in regard to the Amistad case.

In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the Taney Court agreed to hear yet another case regarding slavery, slaves, slave owners, and States' Rights. It held that the Constitutional prohibition against state laws that would emancipate any "person held to service or labor in [another] state" barred Pennsylvania from punishing a Maryland man who had seized a former slave and her child, then had taken them back to Maryland without seeking an order from the Pennsylvania courts permitting the abduction. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Joseph Story held not only that states were barred from interfering with enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws, but that they also were barred from assisting in enforcing those laws.

Taney was also instrumental in the case of John Merryman, a citizen of the state of Maryland who, in the early years of the American Civil War, was accused of burning bridges and destroying telegraph poles, was seized in his home at 2:00 am by military authorities and taken to Fort McHenry. His was the first arrest under President Abraham Lincoln's suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Dred Scott Decision[]

In 1857 came the Supreme Court case that destroyed Taney's historical reputation, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which is also considered to be one of the indirect causes of the Civil War. Despite the willingness of five members of the Court to dismiss the lawsuit by Dred Scott seeking his freedom on grounds situated in Missouri law governing who could sue and be sued, Taney wrote what became regarded as the opinion for the Court, presenting Taney's version of the origins of the United States and the Constitution as substantiation for his holdings that Congress had no authority to restrict the spread of slavery into federal territories, and that such previous attempts to restrict slavery's spread as the 1820 Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional.[7]

One of the two dissenters, Justice Benjamin Curtis, was so upset by the decision that he resigned from the court.[8]

The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision was widely condemned at the time by opponents of slavery as an illegitimate use of judicial power. Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party accused the Taney Court of carrying out the orders of the "slave power" and of conspiring with President James Buchanan to undo the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Current scholarship supports that second charge, as it appears that Buchanan put significant political pressure behind the scenes on Justice Robert Grier to obtain at least one vote from a justice from outside the South to support the Court's sweeping decision.

Taney's intemperate language only added to the fury of those who opposed the decision. As he explained the Court's ruling, African-Americans, free or slave, could not be citizens of any state, because the drafters of the Constitution had viewed them as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."[7]

The full context of Taney's statement from the Dred Scott ruling:

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.[7]
File:Roger B. Taney - Brady-Handy.jpg

Chief Justice Taney

Author Tom Burnam, in Dictionary of Misinformation (1975), commented (pp. 257–58) that "it seems unfair to quote the remark above out of a context which includes the phrase 'that unfortunate race,' etc."

Taney's own attitudes toward slavery were more complex. Taney not only emancipated his own slaves, but gave pensions to those who were too old to work. In 1819, he defended a Methodist minister who had been indicted for inciting slave insurrections by denouncing slavery in a camp meeting. In his opening argument in that case Taney condemned slavery as "a blot on our national character."

Taney's attitudes toward slavery, however, hardened over time. By the time he wrote his opinion in Dred Scott he labeled the opposition to slavery as "northern aggression," a popular phrase among Southerners. He evidently hoped that a Supreme Court decision declaring federal restrictions on slavery in the territories unconstitutional would put the issue beyond the realm of political debate. As it turned out, he was wrong, as his decision only served to galvanize Northern opposition to slavery while splitting the Democratic Party on sectional lines.

Many abolitionists — and some supporters of slavery — believed that Taney was prepared to rule that the states likewise had no power to bar slaveholders from bringing their property into free states and that state laws providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory were likewise unconstitutional. A case, Lemmon v. New York, that presented that issue was slowly making its way to the Supreme Court in the years after the Dred Scott decision. The outbreak of the American Civil War denied Taney that opportunity, as the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded and no longer recognized the Court's authority.

Lincoln Presidency[]

Taney personally administered the oath of office to Lincoln, his most prominent critic, on March 4, 1861.[9] He continued to trouble Lincoln during the three years he remained Chief Justice after the beginning of the war. After President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in parts of Maryland, Taney ruled as Circuit Judge in Ex parte Merryman (1861) that only Congress had the power to take this action. Some scholars argue that Lincoln made an aborted attempt to arrest Taney himself in response to his habeas corpus decision, though the evidence is sparse. Lincoln ignored the court's order and continued to arrest prisoners without the privilege of the writ, though Merryman was eventually released without charges. Some Radical Republicans in Congress even considered initiating impeachment charges against Taney.

Final years[]

Taney, whose health had never been good, spent his final years in worsening health, near poverty, despised by both North and South, and since the Merryman ruling, having been all but ignored, for both better and for worse, by Lincoln and his cabinet. But for Taney, who had lost his Maryland estates to the Civil War, the worst was the degrading poverty:

"All my life I have felt the obligation to pay my debts . . . and my inability to do so at this time is mortifying." He explained that his rent had been raised from $4,000 to $8,000 but that he had been prevented from moving to cheaper quarters due to the failing health of his daughter Ellen, who lived with him. The miserable financial situation was maddening to him. . . . A few months later Taney wrote nostalgically ". . . about peaceful, bygone days . . . walks in the fresh country air. But my walking days are over." [10]

(Note: Taney's yearly salary was approximately $10,000. In the inflationary Washington, D.C. of this time the yearly rent for his boardinghouse rooms had jumped from $4,000 to $8,000, with no increase in pay.)

On October 13, 1864 the clerk of the Supreme Court announced that "the great and good Chief Justice is no more." He had died at the age of eighty-seven the previous evening, having served for more than twenty-eight years as the fifth Chief Justice of the United States.

President Lincoln made no public statement either acknowledging Taney's death or his years as Chief Justice. Only Lincoln and three other members of his cabinet—Secretary of State William H. Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Postmaster General William Dennison—agreed to attend Taney's memorial service in Washington, D.C. Of these, only Bates joined the cortège to Frederick, Maryland for Taney's funeral and burial. Taney, whose wife had pre-deceased him by nearly twenty years, left behind nothing but two daughters—the sickly Ellen, and a second, widowed, daughter with a small child—a small life insurance policy, and a bundle of worthless Virginia bonds.

Taney was punished by abolitionists in the Senate even after his death. In early 1865, the House of Representatives passed a bill to appropriate funds for a bust of Taney to be displayed in the courtroom of the Supreme Court.[11] "Now an emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision?" exclaimed the indignant Senator Charles Sumner, "If a man has done evil in his life, he must not be complimented in marble." Instead, Sumner proposed that a vacant spot, not a bust of Taney, be left in the courtroom "to speak in warning to all who would betray liberty!"[12]

Death and legacy[]

File:Roger B. Taney statue, Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD.jpg

Taney statue at Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, Maryland

His remains are buried at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland.[13][14][15]

His home, Taney Place, located at Adelina, Calvert County, Maryland was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Another Taney home is located in Frederick, MD where Taney lived and practiced law with partner Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner. The [Roger Brooke Taney House] "including the house, detached kitchen, root cellar, smokehouse and slaves quarters, interprets the life of Taney and his wife Anne Key (sister of Francis Scott Key), as well as various aspects of life in early nineteenth century Frederick County."

Taney remained a controversial figure following his death, even when merely a statuary figure. In 1865, Congress rejected the proposal to commission a bust of Taney to be displayed with those of the four Chief Justices who preceded him. As Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said:

I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also. . . .

Sumner had long exhibited an extreme and bitter dislike of the late Chief Justice. Upon hearing the news of Taney's passing the previous year, he wrote President Abraham Lincoln in celebration declaring that "Providence has given us a victory" in Taney's death. Even though Congress had earlier refused to commission a bust of Taney for display, it eventually did so when Taney's successor, Chief Justice Salmon Chase, died. In 1873, Congress apportioned funds for busts of both Taney and Chase to be displayed in the Capitol alongside the other chief justices.

Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, author of the dissent on Dred Scott, held his former colleague in high esteem despite their differences in that case. Writing in his own memoirs, Curtis described Taney:

He was indeed a great magistrate, and a man of singular purity of life and character. That there should have been one mistake in a judicial career so long, so exalted, and so useful is only proof of the imperfection of our nature. The reputation of Chief Justice Taney can afford to have anything known that he ever did and still leave a great fund of honor and praise to illustrate his name. If he had never done anything else that was high, heroic, and important, his noble vindication of the writ of habeas corpus, and of the dignity and authority of his office, against a rash minister of state, who, in the pride of a fancied executive power, came near to the commission of a great crime, will command the admiration and gratitude of every lover of constitutional liberty, so long as our institutions shall endure.

Modern legal scholars have tended to concur with Justice Curtis that, notwithstanding the Dred Scott decision and the furor surrounding it, which will forever be attached to his name, Taney was both an outstanding jurist and a competent judicial administrator.

His mixed legacy was wistfully noted by Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

There comes vividly to mind a portrait by Emanuel Leutze that hangs in the Harvard Law School: Roger Brooke Taney, painted in 1859, the 82d year of his life, the 24th of his Chief Justiceship, the second after his opinion in Dred Scott. He is all in black, sitting in a shadowed red armchair, left hand resting upon a pad of paper in his lap, right hand hanging limply, almost lifelessly, beside the inner arm of the chair. He sits facing the viewer, and staring straight out. There seems to be on his face, and in his deep set eyes, an expression of profound sadness and disillusionment. Perhaps he always looked that way, even when dwelling upon the happiest of thoughts. But those of us who know how the lustre of his great Chief Justiceship came to be eclipsed by Dred Scott cannot help believing that he had that case--its already apparent consequences for the Court, and its soon to be played out consequences for the Nation--burning on his mind.

Taney County, Missouri, is named in his honor, though it is usually pronounced Template:IPA-en, not Template:IPA-en. He is still honored in his home state of Maryland, where Federal troops arrested and imprisoned the state legislature without habeas corpus by order of President Lincoln.[citation needed] There is a statue of Justice Taney prominently displayed on the grounds of the Maryland State House. Additionally, a street in Baltimore City bears his name.[16]

Chief Justice Taney was one of thirteen Catholic justices – out of 111 total through the appointment of Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor – in the history of the Supreme Court.[17][citation needed]

The Treasury-class US Coast Guard Cutter Taney, a long-serving American vessel notable for being the last ship afloat to have fought at Pearl Harbor is named for him, due to his prior service as Secretary of the Treasury (although the Coast Guard erroneously pronounced the name as "tain-ee" rather than "taw-nee"). The ship is now part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

Liberty ship Roger B. Taney also bore his name. After being commissioned on February 9, 1942, on July 2, 1943 she was torpedoed in the South Atlantic. Three crew members died. Many of the crew were involved in an epic 22 day 2,600 mile journey, including surviving a hurricane, and successfully landing in the Bahamas. [18]

See also[]


  • Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Dual federalism
  • List of Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • List of United States Chief Justices by time in office





  1. "Federal Judicial Center: Roger Taney". 2009-12-12. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  2. "Roger Brooke Taney, class of 1795". Dickinson College. Retrieved 2007-10-22. 
  3. Newmyer, R. Kent, "The Supreme Court under Marshall and Taney: ", University of Connecticut (1968), p.93
  4. McNeal, J. (1912). Roger Brooke Taney. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 28, 2009 from New Advent:
  5. Ibid. p95
  6. "Nominations: Chapter 5: Andrew Jackson". United States Senate. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857)
  8. Ariens, Michael, Roger B. Taney.
  9. "Presidential Inaugurations: Presidential Oaths of Office". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-01-06. 
  10. Simon, James F. "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers",(Simon and Schuster, 2006)pp. 245,246.
  11. Roger B. Taney by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 - 1907) Marble, 1876 ca. United States Senate Arts and History.
  12. Simon,James,F., "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney",(Simon and Schuster, 2006) p.268
  13. Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  14. Roger Brooke Taney memorial at Find a Grave.
  15. Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (Feb 19, 2008), University of Alabama.
  17. Religious affiliation of Supreme Court justices Justice Sherman Minton converted to Catholicism after his retirement. James F. Byrnes was raised as Catholic, but converted to Episcopalianism before his confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice.
  18. Liberty Ship SS Roger B. Taney.

Further reading[]

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3. 
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books). ISBN 1568021267. 
  • Flanders, Henry. The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874 at Google Books.
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L.. eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0791013774. 
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195058356. 
  • Huebner, Timothy S.; Renstrom, Peter; coeditor. (2003) The Taney Court, Justice Rulings and Legacy. City: ABC-Clio Inc.ISBN 1576073688.
  • Lewis, Walker (1965). Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books. ISBN 0871875543. 
  • Simon, James F. (2006) Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers (Paperback) New York: Simon & Schuster, 336 pages. ISBN 0743298462.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. pp. 590. ISBN 0815311761. 

External links[]

Template:U.S. Secretary boxTemplate:S-offTemplate:U.S. Secretary box
Legal offices
Preceded by
Thomas Kell
Attorney General of Maryland
1827 - 1831
Succeeded by
Josiah Bayly
Preceded by
John Marshall
Chief Justice of the United States
March 15, 1836 - October 12, 1864
Succeeded by
Salmon P. Chase

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