Roger Brooke Taney (March 17, 1777–October 12, 1864) was the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, from 1836 until his death in 1864. Taney died on the same day that Maryland abolished slavery.
Taney was born to a wealthy slave-owning family that raised tobacco in Calvert County, Maryland. Since he could not, as the second son, expect to inherit his family's wealth, he chose to pursue a career in law. He was educated at Dickinson College, where he graduated first in his class, then studied for the law in apprenticeship to a judge in Annapolis, Maryland. He married Anne Phebe Charlton Key, sister of Francis Scott Key, in 1806.
Taney began his political career in Maryland in 1799 as a Federalist, elected at age 22 to the House of Delegates. After he was defeated for reelection in 1801 he moved to Frederick, Maryland, where he practiced law until 1823, when he relocated his family and practice to Baltimore.
Taney broke with the national leadership of the Federalist Party when it opposed the War of 1812, but remained within the party, taking over leadership of it in Maryland in 1816, when he was elected to the State Senate. He aligned himself with the Democratic Party in the years after that, supporting Jackson for President in 1824.
Taney was appointed Attorney General of Maryland in 1827, then became Jackson's Attorney General in 1831. As Attorney General Taney helped lead Jackson's war against the Second Bank of the United States, drafting Jackson's veto message when Congress renewed the Bank's charter in 1832. When William J. Duane, Jackson's Secretary of the Treasury, refused to withdraw the federal government's deposits from the Bank, Jackson appointed Taney in his place on September 24, 1833. Taney promptly carried out Jackson's order, which helped bring about the Panic of 1837 several years later.
Taney's role in this controversy not only brought a great deal of criticism aimed personally at Taney, but led the Senate to refuse to confirm his nomination for Secretary of the Treasury -- the first time that the Senate had exercised its power to reject a cabinet officer. Taney resigned as acting Secretary on June 25, 1834.
The Senate continued to punish Taney for his role in undermining the Bank the following year by rejecting his nomination to replace Gabriel Duvall, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The following year, however, the makeup of the Senate had changed enough to permit Taney to replace John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Unlike Marshall, who had supported a broad role for the federal government in the area of economic regulation, Taney and the other justices appointed by Jackson more often favored the power of the states. The Taney court, among other things, overturned the Marshall Court's decision in the "Dartmouth College Case" (1819) that had limited the power of the states to regulate corporations and reversed the Marshall Court's previous holding that states could not charter banks.
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 vs. the Commonwealth of 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 taken them back to Maryland without seeking an order from the Pennsylvania courts permitting the abduction. The Taney Court extended this rule ten years later in Moore vs. Illinois (1852) to hold that "any state law or regulation which interrupts, impedes, limits, embarasses, delays or postpones the right of the owner to the immediate possession of the slave, and the immediate command of his service, is void." Five years later Taney wrote the decision for the Court in the Dred Scott case that declared any restrictions imposed by Congress on the spread of slavery into the territories, such as those found in the Missouri Compromise, to be unconstitutional.
The Dred Scott 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 scene 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."
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 Southern supporters of slavery. 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 vs. 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 State of Virginia no longer recognized the Court's authority.
Taney continued to trouble Lincoln during the three years he remained Chief Justice after the beginning of the war. After the federal government declared martial law in parts of the State of Maryland and suspended the right to habeas corpus, Taney ruled as Circuit Judge in Ex parte Merryman (1861) that only Congress had the power to take this action. Lincoln, after some hesitation, complied with the Court's decision and released Merryman from military custody.
Taney remained a controversial figure -- even when merely a statuary figure -- after 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:
I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also. . . .
Taney County, Missouri is named in his honor. There is a statue of Justice Taney prominently displayed on the grounds of the Maryland state house.