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Roger Taney: Architect of Disaster

In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the fifth in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once described two groups of people: “hedgehogs,” those who knew everything about one thing, and “foxes,” those who know something about a lot of things. That idea has another application: people who, despite living long and varied lives, are only remembered for one thing.

For example, Fred Snodgrass was a baseball player for the New York Giants. He dropped a fly ball that cost the Giants the 1912 World Series. Snodgrass went on to have a long and productive life, a successful business, rancher and mayor of Oxnard, Calif. When he died in 1974, the obituary read “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead, Muffed 1912 Fly Ball.”

Roger Taney also had a long and productive life, but he will be remembered for only one thing, something far worse than dropping a fly ball. Taney wrote the majority opinion in what is known as the Dred Scott Case, generally viewed as one of, if not, the worst decisions in Supreme Court history.

At no point in the Court’s deliberations were the lives and the freedom of Dred Scott, his wife Harriet and their two daughters an important consideration in arriving at a decision. The justices were going to rule against Scott. They saw their choices as ruling against the slave family on either narrow or broader grounds.

Their goal, and that the incoming president, James Buchanan, was to make the slavery issue go away and keep the union together. To reach the broader and more sweeping decision would make it clear that nobody, state or federal, could constitutionally abolish slave property.

Roger Taney was a slave owner, but he had freed his slaves and given them pensions. His rendering of the court’s decision in the Scott case wiped away whatever credit he may have merited for his good deeds.

His opinion went beyond what the majority had wanted. He said that black people when brought to this country were never intended to be part of “the people.” Slaves were described as “beings of an inferior order.” He said that black people could not be citizens and that they “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”

He misinterpreted the “due process” clause of the constitution by saying that no congressional action could legitimize seizing any property, i.e., slaves.

Taney and the Supreme Court went even further. They painted a picture of what would happen if they ruled differently: “It would give persons of the negro race the right to enter every other State, to stay there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased…to hold public meetings and carry arms wherever they went.”

History is always written looking back. President Buchanan had hoped that the decision would take the question of slavery off the table. The court, in attempting to hold the union together, had believed they were doing the same thing.

They sent a bitter old man out to do the job for them. Instead, in addition to the profound moral failure that the decision represented, Taney had set the country on the path to disunion and a disastrous civil war.

Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.

Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.

Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.

Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.

As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.

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