Taney's Zombie: Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's Life in Maryland's Black Belt: Revelations About Dred Scott and the Still Undead Commitment to White Supremacy and Racial Hatred [Abstract]
3 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2020 Last revised: 11 Aug 2020
Date Written: July 22, 2020
Roger Taney was born and raised in Maryland’s Black Belt, a region so committed to the institution of slavery that it sought to secede from Maryland and unite with slavery-entrenched Virginia. His first teachers included a well-credentialed, but unhinged man who so fervently believed that he, like Christ, could walk on water that he drowned in the attempt. Taney’s progenitors went from indentured servant to High Sheriff of Calvert County, whose duties included the “disposal” of the colonial Anglican church’s property of women, including free white women, and their mixed race children, and slaveholding landowner married into the illustrious colonial family of Francis Scott Key.
This grounding in white supremacy, slavery, and racial hatred followed Taney into his privileged rise through the Maryland legislature, into private practice, and then as Maryland attorney general and subsequently, as reward for his zealous support of Andrew Jackson in his rise to the Presidency, to the offices of U.S. attorney general, Secretary of Treasury, and finally, for almost thirty years, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. During his long tenure as Chief Justice, the nation ran toward Civil War, and the Taney Court decided such monumental cases as the challenge of President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus after a Maryland contemporary and acquaintance of Taney was arrested and held without charges for sabotage.
No decision of the Taney Court is more reviled than that of Dred Scott v. Sandford, an opinion written by Chief Justice Taney and in which his familial, social, and legal history of white supremacy and racial hatred is unstintingly revealed. The final irony in the life of this infamous Chief Justice is that on his deathbed in Washington, D.C., he urgently condemned the voter suppression taking place on that day in a constitutional vote in Maryland.
Today in the Black Belt and elsewhere in the nation, Taney’s zombie of white supremacy, racial hatred, and segregation walks undead, its evil spirit inflamed by hateful politically-motivated rhetoric, the imprimatur of such speakers, and cultural hatred and ignorance, and by failures of many of the avowed religious to condemn and cast out those who abominate the strength of our national values and identity. From voter suppression in North Carolina to horseback sheriff deputies leading a roped black man down to the unexamined use of predictive algorithmic systems disparately impacting the poor and people of color in bail, detention, parole, and sentencing decisions, the spirit that imbued Taney’s Dred Scott opinion and animated his life’s values remains alive within the nation’s culture and legal system.
Informed with this history and reflection, perhaps we as a nation can illuminate the evil at large and finally kill off that demon and conclude, at last, the Civil War.
Keywords: white supremacy, racial discrimination, Dred Scott, Taney Court, slavery, legal history
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