March 28, 1836 – Roger B. Taney Begins Serving as Fifth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court

Roger Taney (pronounced as if it were spelled “tawny”) was born into a wealthy slave-owning family in Maryland on March 17, 1777.

At the age of fifteen, Taney went to Dickinson College, and then read law under Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase in Annapolis. Taney was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1799.

He entered politics as a member of the Federalist Party but then switched to the Democratic-Republican Party. In 1816 he won election to a five-year term in the Maryland State Senate. In 1823, Taney moved his legal practice to Baltimore, where he gained a reputation as an effective litigator.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

In 1826, Taney and Daniel Webster represented a client in a case that appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1827, Taney was appointed as the Attorney General of Maryland. Taney supported Andrew Jackson in the 1824 presidential election and the 1828 presidential election.

In 1831, President Jackson appointed Taney as his attorney general. Beginning in 1833, Taney served as Secretary of the Treasury under a recess appointment. In that position, Taney helped Jackson disassemble the National Bank. After serving in that post for nine months, Taney became the first cabinet nominee ever to be rejected by the Senate. 

In 1835, after Democrats took control of the Senate, Jackson appointed Taney to succeed the late John Marshall on the Supreme Court as Chief Justice. He was confirmed despite strong opposition from prominent congressmen such as Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster.

Taney presided over a jurisprudential shift toward states’ rights, but the Taney Court did not reject federal authority to the degree that many of Taney’s critics had feared. Anecdotally, Taney introduced new practices into the Supreme Court that are still adhered to today, such as wearing ordinary pants underneath robes and the Chief Justice assigning opinions to individual justices.

By the early 1850s, he was widely respected, and some elected officials looked to the Supreme Court to settle the national debate over slavery. Despite emancipating his own slaves and giving pensions to those who were too old to work, Taney believed that slavery was a problem to be resolved gradually and chiefly by the states in which it existed. He was outraged by Northern attacks on the institution, and sought to use his infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford decision to permanently end the slavery debate. In that case, Taney ruled that the Framers of the Constitution believed slaves were so inferior that they possessed no legal rights. He held the Missouri compromise unconstitutional, claiming that as property, slaves were protected under Article V. 

Dred Scott circa 1857, via Wikipedia

The outrage in the North over Dred Scott helped propel Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, followed by secession and civil war. Taney had a number of confrontations with Lincoln during the war, the most famous of which was over Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. In Ex Parte Merryman (1861), Taney ruled that only Congress had the power to suspend the writ. Lincoln ignored the decision entirely, arguing that public safety and urgency required the suspension.

Taney served until he died on October 12, 1864, at the age of 87, after being Chief Justice for 28 years. Abraham Lincoln, then president, appointed Salmon P. Chase as his successor. Oyez notes that Taney’s Dred Scott ruling is widely considered to be the worst Supreme Court decision ever made.

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