Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864)

Fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1836-64), remembered principally for the Dred Scott decision.

Early life and career.

Taney was the son of Michael and Monica (Brooke) Taney. Of English ancestry, Michael Taney had been educated in France and was a prosperous tobacco grower in Calvert County, Md. After graduation from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, in 1795, Taney studied law with Judge Jeremiah Chase, of the Maryland General Court. He was admitted to the bar in 1799 at Annapolis and served one year in the Maryland House of Delegates before settling down in Frederick, Md., to practice law. In 1806 he married Anne Key, whose brother, Francis Scott Key, later wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

He entered politics as a Federalist, and was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1799-80. His faith in Federalism was weakened by the party's opposition to the War of 1812, and he gradually became associated with the Jacksonian wing of the Republican party. He served in the state Senate in 1816-21, was Attorney General of Maryland in 1827-31; and in July 1831 entered President Andrew Jackson's cabinet as Attorney General of the United States. He was the President's chief adviser in the attack on the United States Bank, and was transferred to the treasury department in September 1833 for the special purpose of removing the government deposits. This conduct brought him into conflict with the Senate, which passed a vote of censure, and (in June 1834) refused to confirm his appointment as secretary of the treasury. He returned to his law practice in Baltimore, but on the 28th of December 1835 was nominated Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court to succeed John Marshall. After strong opposition the nomination was confirmed, on the 15th of March 1836, by the Senate.

Throughout his tenure in Washington, Taney had been an outspoken leader in the Democrats' fight against the central bank, the Bank of the United States, which was widely regarded as a tool of Eastern financial interests. Taney believed it had abused its powers, and he strongly advised the President to veto the congressional bill that would renew the bank's charter and wrote much of the veto message; he also recommended that government funds be withdrawn from the bank and be deposited in a number of state banks.

As a result of his role in the fight over the Bank of the United States, Taney had become a national figure, and in 1833 President Jackson appointed him secretary of the treasury. But opposition to Taney and his financial program was so strong that the Senate rejected him in June 1834, marking the first time that Congress had refused to confirm a presidential nominee for a Cabinet post.

Taney returned to Baltimore to rebuild his law practice. A year later, Jackson nominated him to the Supreme Court of the United States as an associate justice. Taney's enemies stalled the nomination indefinitely. Then, on July 6, 1835, Chief Justice John Marshall died, and Taney was nominated to fill his place on the bench.

Despite powerful resistance, led by such prominent politicians as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, Taney was sworn in as chief justice in March 1836. Although he had inherited the conservative tradition of the Southern aristocracy and had supported states' rights, the Taney court did not discard John Marshall's ideas of federal supremacy. Taney believed firmly in divided sovereignty, but he also believed it was the Supreme Court's role to decide which powers should be shared. Eventually, many of those who had opposed Taney's appointment came to respect him.

One of the most important decisions for which the Taney court is noted concerned rights granted by charters. The majority opinion in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) declared that rights not specifically conferred could not be inferred from the language of a document. In this decision Taney rejected the claim of a bridge company that the subsequent grant by the state legislature of a charter to another bridge company impaired the legislature's charter to the first company.

The Dred Scott case.

The majority opinion that Taney delivered on March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sanford is the one for which he is best known. In essence, the decision argued that Scott was a slave and as such was not a citizen and could not sue in a federal court. Taney's further opinion that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories and that Negroes could not become citizens was bitterly attacked in the Northern press. The Dred Scott decision probably created more disagreement than any other legal opinion in U.S. history; it became a violently divisive issue in national politics and dangerously undermined the prestige of the Supreme Court.

Whenever state authorities threatened or interfered with the execution of federal power, however, Taney upheld federal supremacy. His opinion in Ableman v. Booth (1858), denying state power (in this case the courts of the state of Wisconsin) to obstruct the processes of the federal courts, remains a magnificent statement of constitutional federalism. Under Taney's leadership federal judicial power was expanded over corporations, the federal government was held to have paramount and exclusive authority over foreign relations, and congressional authority over U.S. property and territory was vigorously upheld.

During the Civil War, Judge Taney struggled unsuccessfully to protect individual liberty from the encroachments of the military authorities. In the case of ex parte John Merryman (1861), he protested against the assumption of power by the President to suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus or to confer that power upon a military officer without the authorization of Congress.

Taney, a deeply religious Roman Catholic, considered slavery an evil. He had freed the slaves he had inherited before he came to the Supreme Court. It was his belief, however, that slavery was a problem to be resolved gradually and chiefly by the states in which it existed. As an adherent of the South, he could do nothing but watch the defeat of his cause. He died in Washington in October 1864 at 87. He was Chief Justice for 28 years, and the combined service of Marshall and Taney had taken the Supreme Court through the first two-thirds of the 19th century. Taney was the first Roman Catholic to be named a Justice of the Supreme Court. Even though his thinking ran counter to the dominant historical trends of his time, he had an enduring influence on the substance and evolution of U.S. constitutional law.