The U.S. House was expected to vote Wednesday on a bill to remove a bust of Roger Taney from the Capitol. The bill is likely to pass, though its prospects in the Republican-led Senate and with President Trump are less clear.
The bill is worth a look not because of the feverish movement to remove tributes to Confederate leaders and others who supported the institution of slavery, but because of one person’s alternate suggestion on what Congress should do with the bust.
Many Americans have never heard of Taney. He was the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott ruling that said Black people could never be American citizens. For good measure, his ruling also said the Missouri Compromise, which most of us learned about in sixth-grade social studies classes, was unconstitutional.
Taney was chief justice for 28 years, and before that served as attorney general and treasury secretary. Whatever he accomplished during that lengthy career of public service, the Dred Scott ruling rightly stands out as an unforgivable sin. Many historians call it the Supreme Court’s worst-ever decision, one that Taney and the other justices in the surprisingly lopsided 7-2 majority somehow believed would resolve America’s slavery debate. Not surprisingly, it instead helped bring on the Civil War.
The bill proposes to replace the Taney bust with one of Thurgood Marshall, who like Taney was from Maryland. Marshall was the high court’s first Black justice, and before that he was the lead attorney for the team that won the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which said school segregation was unconstitutional.
It’s a good switch. Marshall’s reputation does not carry a stain like Taney’s does. But an even better idea, as reported by The Associated Press, comes from a most unlikely source: a direct descendant of Dred Scott, the slave who pursued freedom through the courts for a decade.
“Lynne M. Jackson, Scott’s great-great-granddaughter, says if it were up to her, she’d leave Taney’s bust where it is,” the AP reported. “But she said she’d add something too: a bust of Dred Scott.”
“I’m not really a fan of wiping things out,” Jackson told the AP. She believes memorials like the Taney bust need context to be better understood today. What an excellent observation.
The bust of Taney is outside the Capitol room where the court issued the Dred Scott ruling. It would be well paired with a memorial to one of the first people who challenged America to live up to its ideals.
Taney wrote the 200-page Dred Scott ruling, which includes gems like, “a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.” But six of the court’s other eight justices agreed with him, dismissing any concept that the Bill of Rights and all other liberties and protections in the Constitution might apply to all people. This is a mindset that is hard to understand today — but had plenty of adherents in the 19th century. They literally fought a war over it.
The United States certainly needed someone like Dred Scott. After his owner took him to a territory where slavery was illegal, he had every right — and probably a healthy dose of courage — to ask why the law should prevent him from retaining his freedom permanently.
Perhaps we also needed Roger Taney. Every compelling story has its villain, and when it comes to the slavery debate, Taney fits the bill. His court utterly failed to foresee the future.
Of course, without the Dred Scott ruling, differences between the Northern and Southern states might not have led to the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the common man who became one of our most acclaimed presidents.