Roger Brooke Taney

Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864) was an American political leader and as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court greatly contributed to constitutional law.

Roger B. Taney was born in Calvert County, Md., on March 17, 1777, into a landed, slaveholding family that proudly traced its line back five generations. He received the rudiments of a classical education from a private tutor and at the age of 15 entered Dickinson College. There he found little to upset his aristocratic prejudices, but he did gain an abiding love of learning and graduated with honors in 1795.

As a younger son with no prospect of inheriting the family estate, young Taney chose the profession of law, with his eye on politics. In 1799 he was admitted to the bar and served one term as a Federalist representative in the state legislature. In private practice he quickly distinguished himself as one of Maryland's most promising young lawyers. He married Anne Key on Jan. 7, 1806, and she and their seven children were a constant solace throughout Taney's strenuous public life.

In Jackson's Cabinet

From 1816 through 1821 Taney served as state senator. When new parties emerged from the confusion of the 1820s, Taney cast his lot with the forces of Andrew Jackson. In 1831 he resigned his office as state attorney general, which he had held since 1827, in order to accept an appointment in President Jackson's Cabinet as attorney general. Among his opinions as attorney general, two revealed his stand on slavery: one supported South Carolina's law prohibiting free Blacks from entering the state, and one argued that Blacks could not be citizens. In 1833, as secretary of the Treasury, Taney ordered an end to the deposit of Federal money in the Second Bank of the United States, an act which killed the institution.

Aware of Taney's ability and certain of his political orthodoxy, President Jackson, on Dec. 28, 1835, appointed him to the office of chief justice of the United States, left vacant by the death of John Marshall. Taney was instrumental in shaping constitutional law to fit the new age. His opinion in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) set the tone of the new Court. The Massachusetts Legislature had chartered a new, prospectively toll-free bridge across the Charles River. The old bridge company contended that its original charter implied monopoly rights. Taney's opinion refused to recognize the doctrine of implied contract, thus giving the states more latitude to legislate in the public interest. Taney also argued that the refusal to grant monopoly by implication would encourage economic progress by preventing entrenched capital from thwarting new corporate development.

Taney was a moderate, standing between old nationalists on the Court and the more extreme states'-rightists. The Chief Justice also made clear that he was a firm friend of private property. Despite his suspicion of corporate power (his opinion in Bank of Augusta v. Earle, 1839), he broadened the interstate operation of corporations by holding that a corporations chartered in one state had the right to do business in another unless positively prohibited by that state.

Personal and Professional Qualities

Thin, stooped, and sallow, Taney did not fit a heroic mold; but his mind was acute, his pen lucid. His patience, tact, and ability were instrumental in overcoming personal and doctrinal divisions among the justices, and though the Court was frequently divided, it continued to administer the law effectively. Under Taney's leadership the Court showed more tolerance of legislative power than it had under Marshall, but it did not surrender its hard-won powers to decide.

The issue of slavery was the downfall of the Court and detracted permanently from the image of Taney's states-manship. In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Taney wrote the majority opinion for a bitterly divided Court which unwisely confronted all the explosive political questions in the case. Blacks, he said in a racist vein that has since been irrevocably associated with his name, could not be a citizen of the United States because he was recognized as inherently unequal by the Constitution. Congress, moreover, could not prohibit slavery in the territories because the 5th Amendment to the Constitution protected citizens in the possession of their property, and slaves were property.

Reaction to Taney's opinion was vehement. Almost overnight the Court fell to a new low in the opinion of the majority of Americans, who were now antislavery in sentiment. The years following the Dred Scott case until Taney's death on Oct. 12, 1864, were sad ones for the Chief Justice. Only after the passions of the Civil War had receded was it apparent that, the Dred Scott case excepted, Taney in his own way had contributed almost as much to the development of constitutional government as his great predecessor.

Further Reading on Roger Brooke Taney

The standard biography, Carl Swisher, Roger B. Taney (1935), relates Taney's political-economic experience to his philosophy and judicial career. Walker Lewis, Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1965), supplements Swisher by concentrating on Taney's personal qualities. Samuel Tyler, Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney (1872), though old, still contains useful information, as does Charles W. Smith, Jr., Roger B. Taney: Jacksonian Jurist (1936). Two general accounts of the Supreme Court that include much information on Taney's legal career are Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1922; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926), and Charles G. Haines and Foster Sherwood, The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politicsvol. 2: 1835-1864 (1957). A work in progress, Holmes Devisee, History of the Supreme Court, will devote one volume to the Taney Court.

Additional Biography Sources

Siegel, Martin, The Taney court, 1836-1864, Millwood, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1987.

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