The hasty decision by Maryland’s State House Trust to remove the statue of Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis was an opportunity lost. The three members of the trust’s board who voted by email in favor of removing the statue missed the chance for something becoming exceedingly rare in politics at all levels of government: An informed and civil discourse that enlightens rather than polarizes, and that promotes the sense that a decision is based on something other than raw emotion or politics.
Taney’s personal life and career as a jurist presented the perfect opportunity for a discussion on the standards by which we judge historical figures. The consensus historical view of the Calvert County native was that he was a decent and distinguished man who, if he was guilty of anything, was guilty as the chief justice of the United States of an egregious failure to rise above the prevailing legal view on the rights of African-Americans under the United States Constitution when he authored the majority decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Behind much of the contemporary criticism of Taney by white Americans is a profound conceit: The notion that, if born 240 years ago in a slave-holding state, we somehow would have been nobler and more heroic than Taney when it came time to decide Dred Scott.
Taney was not an evil man; vilifying him for Dred Scott is an exercise in self-deception, an attempt to dismiss the decision, and the attitudes that it represented, as an aberration. The hard truth is that otherwise good men and women of all colors helped perpetuate the institution of human slavery. It is not an easy truth to face for whites or blacks.
Taney, who grew up on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, was a devout Roman Catholic who considered slavery to be evil. He freed his own slaves soon after he inherited them from his father, giving pensions to those too old to work. Thirty-eight years before he wrote the opinion in Dred Scott he argued to a jury in Frederick County that slavery “is a blot on our national character. . . that must be gradually wiped away.”
As a chief justice, however, he stood firmly on the side of states’ rights and against the arrogation of power by the federal government, including the power of Congress to restrict slavery in the western territories. His record includes personal courage represented by his ruling in Ex Parte Merryman and occasional brilliance, as evidenced by his opinion in Ableman v. Booth.
His record as a jurist, however, also includes Dred Scott, decided in 1857 and widely viewed as the most toxic decision in the history of the Supreme Court. The court held that slaves were not citizens for purposes of the rights secured by the United States Constitution. Taney rendered the decision in particularly harsh language, and unnecessarily included his view that states that had abolished slavery were not entitled to free slaves “owned” by citizens of other states.
Taney’s apologists point out that Taney undoubtedly hoped that a definitive statement on the limits of federal power over the slavery question would prevent a civil war; if that was his hope, it was futile one. His opinion contains a clear indication that his own views on the “class of persons who had been imported as slaves” were not the same as the views held by the framers of the Constitution whose intention he was obliged to apply. Regardless of his intent and the content of his heart, however, the decision that he wrote in Dred Scott is an indelible stain on Taney’s reputation.
Any thoughtful discourse on removing Taney’s statue would have included a discussion of the futility and historical inaccuracy of “blaming” specific individuals for the general evil of slavery. To get past that discussion, we first must have it.
I agree with Senate President Mike Miller (D) that it was the absence of a deliberative process preceding the removal of Taney’s statue that is troublesome. I would not have been bothered at all if the outcome of such a process had resulted in a decision that the presence of the statue did more harm than good, and that the statue should be removed. At least we might have learned something from the debate that allows us to stop dwelling in the past, and move forward. What we learned instead from the email vote was that we remain incapable of a meaningful discussion about race and the legacy of slavery in Maryland.
[Published as guest commentary by Maryland Matters on August 21, 2017, but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]