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Portrait of Roger Taney
Portrait of Roger Taney.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Roger Taney

b. March 17, 1777, Calvert County, MD
d. December 12, 1864, Washington, D.C.

Fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Son of a well-to-do family of tobacco farmers, Roger Taney graduated from Dickinson College in 1795 and was admitted to the bar in 1799. A Federalist, he served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1799 to 1800 and was a local Federalist leader until he broke with the party over its opposition to the War of 1812. Later he took control of the Maryland Federalist Party and was elected in 1816 to serve a five-year term in the state senate. In 1824, as the Federalist Party weakened, Taney supported Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson. Jackson became president in 1829, and two years later he appointed Taney Attorney General to assist him in the controversial dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States. Taney helped draft Jackson's statement vetoing the bank's renewal, and he assumed the post of Secretary of the Treasury in 1833 to withdraw all federal funds from the bank, something two previous treasury secretaries had refused to do.

Taney was a political operative, gentle in manner and likable. Though he was involved in controversial actions of the Jackson administration, he largely escaped personal attack. He was frail and afraid of crowds; he suffered from stage fright when arguing cases in court; his voice was feeble; but his presentations were clear and convincing. Jackson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1835, but the Senate, angered by his role in the national bank affair, refused to confirm him. After the death of Chief Justice John Marshall the following year, Jackson renominated Taney, this time as chief justice, and the Senate, with a changed membership, confirmed his appointment.

In many matters, Taney followed the judicial philosophy of the Marshall Court. He generally supported the primacy of federal power, but he believed that beyond a certain line political authority was vested in the states, and it was the Supreme Court's role to determine exactly where that line lay.

The opinion that forever marked the Taney Court was issued in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Although no ardent defender of slavery, Taney was an advocate of moderate states' rights, and as slavery became a heated point of contention between the states and federal authorities, his position toward it hardened. On March 15, 1857, he delivered the majority opinion in the case, stating that African Americans, free or slave, could not be citizens of any state, that they were "of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race." This decision and its inflammatory language aggravated the political crisis and met with furious opposition among Republicans. Taney remained defiant. Writing to Franklin Pierce in 1857, he declared that he believed with "abiding confidence that this act of my judicial life will stand the test of time and the sober judgment of the country." When Abraham Lincoln became president, he treated Taney as an enemy and defied a Taney decision forbidding him to suspend habeas corpus in portions of Maryland after the outbreak of the Civil War (Ex parte Merryman [1861]). When Taney died in Washington in 1864, the prestige of the Supreme Court was at a low ebb and Taney himself was widely vilified.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

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