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Letter, Roger Brooke Taney to Caleb Cushing, thanking Cushing for his support of Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case, November 9, 1857. (Caleb Cushing Papers)


Former Chief Justice Roger Taney (1836-1864) is best remembered for his leading role in one of the most infamous cases in Supreme Court history -- the 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford. The 7-2 decision, penned by Taney, held that African Americans were not, and never could be, U.S. citizens, and ruled the 1820 Missouri Compromise (already repealed) unconstitutional because Congress lacked the authority to regulate slavery in the territories. The decision significantly exacerbated growing sectional tensions between the North and South over the issue of slavery, contributing to the run-up to the Civil War.

Here, Chief Justice Taney writes to Justice Caleb Cushing, a Northerner who had nonetheless supported Taney's decision -- both with his vote and in a October 1857 speech he gave in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in which he defended Taney as "the very incarnation of judicial purity, integrity, science and wisdom." In Taney's letter, dated November 9, 1857, he thanks Cushing and offers his opinion that the "public mind" was not "in a condition to listen to reason" and that "wild passions ruled the hour."