Roger Brooke Taney ("tawny"; March 17, 1777 – October 12, 1864) was the twelfth United States Attorney General. He also 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.
Described by his and President Andrew Jackson's critics as "... stooped, sallow, ugly ... [a] supple, cringing tool of Jacksonian power ..., as the new Chief Justice Taney was as ideally suited for the complex and contradictory period of American history as any man could be: He was a Southerner who loved his country over his state; a believer in states's right yet a firm believer in the Union; a slaveholder who regretted the institution and manumitted his slaves. In 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 (1831-33) and then Secretary of the Treasury (1833) he became one of Andrew Jackson's closest advisers.
"... He brought to the Chef 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.
Taney and his colleagues did, however, depart from their support for state sovereignty in one area: state laws restricting the rights of slaveholders. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the Court 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. The Taney Court extended the rule from Prigg ten years later in Moore v. Illinois (1852), which held that "any state law or regulation which interrupts, impedes, limits, embarrasses, delays or postpones the right of the owner to the immediate possession of the slave, and the immediate command of his service, is void."
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." The full context of Taney's statement from the Dred Scott ruling:
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.
Taney remained a controversial figure, even when merely a statuary figure, following his death. 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:
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 refused, in 1865, 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:
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.
Taney County, Missouri, is named in his honor. He is still honored in his home State of Maryland, which State's legislature was arrested by Federal troops and imprisoned without habeas corpus by order of President Lincoln. There is a statue of Justice Taney prominently displayed on the grounds of the Maryland State House.