Although Taney is ranked by many scholars as one of the great chief justices, his reputation is marred by his support of the rights of slaveholders.
Taney was born into a wealthy Maryland family that farmed tobacco. He studied law and entered Maryland politics. As a member of the Federalist Party, he advocated some government participation in the nation’s economic development. However, his southern background often led him to take a strong states’ rights position on many issues.
Roger Brooke Taney
With the collapse of the Federalist Party, Taney became a Democrat and follower of Andrew Jackson. In 1831 Jackson appointed Taney to the office of attorney general. Initially a supporter of the Bank of the United States, Taney became a vigorous opponent of that institution by the 1820’s. His role in Jackson’s attack on the bank resulted in Taney’s leaving the government. Jackson, however, was indebted to Taney for his efforts, and when the opportunity arose, he nominated him for the position of associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1835. The senate failed to act on the nomination. Later that same year, Jackson nominated Taney to fill the chief justice’s office left vacant by John Marshall’s death. Although considerable opposition to Taney remained, the Senate confirmed him by a vote of twenty-nine to fifteen.
Some observers feared that Taney would undo Marshall’s
Taney changed some of the traditions of the Court. Justices had long shared the same boardinghouse, a practice that Taney abandoned. He also allowed associate justices to write majority opinions in important cases, a responsibility that Marshall usually reserved for himself.
Taney presided over the Court during a period when slavery
In Groves v. Slaughter
Taney’s most famous decision, and the one that damaged his historical reputation, came in the 1857 case of Scott v. Sandford
Taney’s opinion in Scott unleashed a storm of controversy and contributed to the coming of the Civil War. lt also destroyed Taney’s final years on the Court. Already in poor health and grieving from the loss of his wife and daughter to yellow fever in 1835, Taney now received abuse and contempt for his ruling. Nonetheless, he remained on the Court. Although he was a unionist opposed to secession, Taney used his position to attack President Abraham Lincoln and the federal government during the war, including a publicly released brief that condemned the Emancipation Proclamation as unconstitutional. The embittered Taney died in 1864 believing that the power of the Court had been disastrously undermined by Lincoln’s wartime exercise of executive power.
Legal scholars recognize Taney as one of the most effective chief justices in the nation’s history. His willingness to revise Marshall’s nationalist legacy allowed for a measure of flexibility in the law that promoted economic development. However, Taney’s unwavering defense of slavery and the inconsistencies in his political philosophy that resulted from that defense have become the foundation for the general public’s understanding of, and to a great degree contempt for, Taney.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997. Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. Steiner, Bernard C. Life of Roger Brooke Taney: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. Swisher, Carl Brent. Roger B. Taney. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge
Groves v. Slaughter
New York v. Miln
Prigg v. Pennsylvania
Scott v. Sandford