Guest Commentary: An Opportunity Lost With Taney Statue

By David A. Plymyer

The hasty decision by Maryland’s State House Trust to remove the statue of Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis was an opportunity lost. The three members of the trust’s board who voted by email in favor of removing the statue missed the chance for something becoming exceedingly rare in politics at all levels of government: An informed and civil discourse that enlightens rather than polarizes, and that promotes the sense that a decision is based on something other than raw emotion or politics.

Taney’s personal life and career as a jurist presented the perfect opportunity for a discussion on the standards by which we judge historical figures. The consensus historical view of the Calvert County native was that he was a decent and distinguished man who, if he was guilty of anything, was guilty as the chief justice of the United States of an egregious failure to rise above the prevailing legal view on the rights of African-Americans under the United States Constitution when he authored the majority decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Behind much of the contemporary criticism of Taney by white Americans is a profound conceit: The notion that, if born 240 years ago in a slave-holding state, we somehow would have been nobler and more heroic than Taney when it came time to decide Dred Scott.

Taney was not an evil man; vilifying him for Dred Scott is an exercise in self-deception, an attempt to dismiss the decision, and the attitudes that it represented, as an aberration. The hard truth is that otherwise good men and women of all colors helped perpetuate the institution of human slavery. It is not an easy truth to face for whites or blacks.

Taney, who grew up on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, was a devout Roman Catholic who considered slavery to be evil. He freed his own slaves soon after he inherited them from his father, giving pensions to those too old to work. Thirty-eight years before he wrote the opinion in Dred Scott he argued to a jury in Frederick County that slavery “is a blot on our national character. . . that must be gradually wiped away.”

As a chief justice, however, he stood firmly on the side of states’ rights and against the arrogation of power by the federal government, including the power of Congress to restrict slavery in the western territories. His record includes personal courage represented by his ruling in Ex Parte Merryman and occasional brilliance, as evidenced by his opinion in Ableman v. Booth.

His record as a jurist, however, also includes Dred Scott, decided in 1857 and widely viewed as the most toxic decision in the history of the Supreme Court. The court held that slaves were not citizens for purposes of the rights secured by the United States Constitution. Taney rendered the decision in particularly harsh language, and unnecessarily included his view that states that had abolished slavery were not entitled to free slaves “owned” by citizens of other states.

Taney’s apologists point out that Taney undoubtedly hoped that a definitive statement on the limits of federal power over the slavery question would prevent a civil war; if that was his hope, it was futile one. His opinion contains a clear indication that his own views on the “class of persons who had been imported as slaves” were not the same as the views held by the framers of the Constitution whose intention he was obliged to apply.  Regardless of his intent and the content of his heart, however, the decision that he wrote in Dred Scott is an indelible stain on Taney’s reputation.

Any thoughtful discourse on removing Taney’s statue would have included a discussion of the futility and historical inaccuracy of “blaming” specific individuals for the general evil of slavery. To get past that discussion, we first must have it.

I agree with Senate President Mike Miller (D) that it was the absence of a deliberative process preceding the removal of Taney’s statue that is troublesome. I would not have been bothered at all if the outcome of such a process had resulted in a decision that the presence of the statue did more harm than good, and that the statue should be removed.  At least we might have learned something from the debate that allows us to stop dwelling in the past, and move forward. What we learned instead from the email vote was that we remain incapable of a meaningful discussion about race and the legacy of slavery in Maryland.

David A. Plymyer is a former county attorney in Anne Arundel County.  He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net. Twitter: @dplymyer

3 comments

  • What would Attorney Plymyer have us discuss concerning the statue of the late Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would he have us argue over whether slavery is good and thus deserves to be promoted via the continued memorial on the state house lawn to this person who symbolized it? That Taney justified slavery in his 1857 Dred Scott decision is that for which he is best known. Whatever else he may have done cannot, in my view, eliminate that stain on his character. Do we really need to perpetually honor such a person?
    I applaud the action of the three members of the Maryland State House Trust who voted to take that statue down and I especially applaud the member who urged that it be done (House Speaker Mike Busch). The other two members who reportedly cast yes votes were reported to be Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (chair Hogan’s designee) and Charles Edson (a representative of the Maryland Historical Trust. Is the manner by which the members of this board voted really all that big a deal? They could (and surely would, if necessary) have met in person and done the same thing.

  • Not all bad shouldn’t be commemorated w/ a statue, especially when the bad part was so egregious.

    And it was egregious because even if Taney wrote to avoid the civil war he helped make inevitable, he attempted to do so not just by accepting slavery and the second class status of freed African-Americans but expanding the scope of slavery to parts of the country from which it had already been banned.

    Most perniciously, in the contemporary context, this tendentious focus on balance (and I’m a moderate in almost all things political) is predicated on shrinking the horrors of American slavery and afterward Jim Crow, to the scale frail, fallible individuality. It is akin to measuring the Holocaust against the small scale moral culpability of many of its ancillary actors. To put it more graphically, many of the people who attended lynchings were decent parents and good neighbors much of their lives. That doesn’t balance the essential terror and inhumanity of what they witnessed and approved at the lynching. So we don’t have to burn Taney in effigy, but neither do we have to publicly celebrate his contributions to the Republic. Whatever they amounted to they were blotted out by the statue he carved in American politics and law to the convenient acceptance of gross injustice which both he and many others at the time knew to be precisely that at the time.

  • Statues should be reserved for heroes. Leaders who exceed our expectations. Sure, it’s understandable that as a man born in a slave holding state he could excuse slavery. And it’s understandable he supported protecting states rights. But being an everyday guy who shows no special moral fortitude or visionary leadership doesn’t earn you a statue on statehouse grounds, in my opinion. We need people whose leadership inspires us in these positions of honor.

Leave a Reply