Taney, Roger Brooke Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.Jackson, Andrew;nominations to the Court

Roger Brooke Taney

(Mathew Brady/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

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.

Chief Justice

Some observers feared that Taney would undo Marshall’sMarshall, John legacy of a strong judiciary that favored nationalism over states’ rightsStates’ rights. Taney’s decision in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge[case]Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge[Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge] (1837), which significantly revised the legal interpretations of contracts, ran contrary to Marshall’s views and heightened concerns over the direction of the Court. Taney’s decisions in New York v. Miln[case]New York v. Miln[New York v. Miln] (1837) and Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky[case]Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky[Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky] (1837) also deviated from precedents established during Marshall’s tenure. In the long run, however, Taney merely refined Marshall’s nationalist outlook, arguing that the states and the federal government shared many powers and that in those areas of divided sovereignty, states were free to act as long as they did not violate federal laws.

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.

Slavery

Taney presided over the Court during a period when slaverySlavery and its expansion into the western territories became divisive issues in American life. Taney, who regarded slavery as a necessary evil that might one day fade away, had freed the slaves that he had inherited. Nonetheless, he was a staunch supporter of the rights of slaveholders and typically favored the power of the states over the federal government in regard to that issue. The Court had a proslavery majority during most of Taney’s tenure, a fact reflected in its many decisions concerning slavery.

In Groves v. Slaughter[case]Groves v. Slaughter[Groves v. Slaughter] (1841), a case involving the importation of slaves for sale in Mississippi, Taney wrote a concurring opinion in which he maintained that the federal government had no authority over matters involving slavery and the states. However, in his concurring opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania[case]Prigg v. Pennsylvania[Prigg v. Pennsylvania] (1842), Taney argued that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 obliged government officials in free states to cooperate in the capture and return of fugitive slaves to their owners. This opinion revealed that Taney was willing to use federal laws to compel state action in those cases in which those laws supported the institution of slavery.

Taney’s most famous decision, and the one that damaged his historical reputation, came in the 1857 case of Scott v. Sandford[case]Scott v. Sandford[Scott v. Sandford]. In his opinion, Taney maintained that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, were not citizens of the United States. This ruling was in keeping with an opinion he had offered as attorney general regarding the right of states to prohibit the entry of free blacks. In that instance, Taney had declared that African Americans did not have rights because they were not regarded as citizens by the authors of the Constitution.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Civil War

Fugitive slaves

Groves v. Slaughter

New York v. Miln

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Scott v. Sandford

Slavery

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