Roger Brooke Taney Bust

MEMO

To: Mayor W. J. Holtzinger
From: C. Paul Smith
Date: 12 November 2007
Re: Roger Brooke Taney Bust

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I agree that would be a good idea to add an additional plaque or marker on or near the Taney bust in front of City Hall. But the exact form of this additional verbage will need to be addressed before it will be possible to settle on the wording. I propose that the City erect a separate monument or plaque somewhere on the front lawn area. I will mention several problems I have with the Lollar/Djoken proposal. I will also submit a draft of different wording that I believe would be appropriate to use.

I. Form of the monument or plaque.

A. Should there be an additional plaque added to the bust of Roger Brooke Taney? No. The companion busts of Taney and Johnson should remain in place and intact.

B. Should the Taney bust be moved? No. Its historical significance must not be forgotten or ignored. We can do something to present its significance in the context of 2007.

C. I suggest that a granite monument be placed on the lawn of City Hall just across the street from the historic Taney-Key law office. A bronze plaque could be placed on the monument.

II. Concerns about the Lollar/Djoken proposal.

A. The quotes by Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Sumner, Breyer, Starr and Roberts are not appropriate for the monument for several reasons. Monuments are typically not appropriate for historical commentary—rather their purpose is to state the historical events succinctly. The condemnation of Taney is gratuitous condemnation of one man, who, because of his position as a Supreme Court Justice, was called upon to make a judgment and to articulate his reasons for it. As egregious as we find his views today, approximately half of the nation held to his view for a hundred years or more. It is not appropriate for the City to condemn any man with a negative epithet. We should simply state the facts—the commentators have free reign to comment, analyze and judge. The twin busts were placed there in the first place because both Johnson and Taney were men who played principal roles in the early years of Maryland’s history. Regardless of the morality of what they did, both men held positions of prominence in the early history of the United States.

B. I disapprove of including the entire three lines from Taney’s opinion that refers to Negroes being “inferior” and “unfit to associate with the white race.” It is unfair to impose on Taney the values of the 21st century, which repudiate and condemn the views Taney expressed 150 years ago. By publishing the three lines of specific words that are so reprehensible today—it serves to tarnish and condemn Taney as a man. But the significance of Taney is not his personal life—it is his role as author of the Supreme Court opinion—a public role. Most people will never have read the three lines that Lollar/Djoken propose to publish. This will serve to create more upset, discontent and anger than is appropriate; it will tend to do more harm than good. It will not give the context of the statement. Furthermore, the quote itself has a qualifier—that Taney is not stating his view, but rather is stating how negroes were “regarded.” But this qualifier will be ignored, and the focus will be on the statement that followed—which in our day is highly inflammatory, but which was not so widely condemned 150 years ago.

C. The plaque should not state that this was “one of the worst rulings ever made.” It is not for a plaque to make subjective judgments about historical events—but rather to just state the facts.

D. Neither should the plaque state that “Taney might have gone down in history as one of the ablest judges to serve our country.” Frankly, I have never heard anyone give him such high marks. But, in any event, the role of a plaque is merely to state the facts—not to give commentary.

E. The entire message proposed by Lollar/Djoken needs significant revising before it would be appropriate for a plaque.

F. We should remember that the driving force behind taking any action is a matter of significant difference in our community. Some black activists are taking offense at the existence of the Taney bust. Many City residents are unhappy that City actions are being dictated by people who are not Frederick City residents. It is my judgment that most City residents do not want the Taney bust moved. I believe that most residents recognize the historical significance of Roger Brooke Taney, and I believe that the error of Taney’s opinion is universally acknowledged. But to appreciate where we are today and the progress that has been made it is also important to remember where we (as a nation) have been. Acknowledgement of the Dredd Scott decision—with all its prejudice and flaws—is an important piece of history for all of us to learn and understand, as we work to become a more perfect union.

III. Attached is a draft of some language that might be suitable for a plaque.

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Just east of this marker is the small brick building in which Roger Brooke Taney and Francis Scott Key practiced law in the early 1800s. Taney married the sister of Francis Scott Key. Both men rose to national prominence: Key for authoring “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Taney for his service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for 28 years.

President Andrew Jackson, appointed Taney Attorney General in 1831. Taney was highly regarded as a man of integrity and empathy and possessing excellent persuasive skills through sound reason and logical explanation. In 1836, Taney was nominated by President Jackson and confirmed by the Senate to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He held this position for 28 years—a longer period of time than any other Chief Justice except John Marshall (34 years).

Historically, Taney’s fame is most notably attached to his authoring of the Supreme Court’s Dredd Scott decision in 1857. In this case, by a 7-2 vote the Supreme Court ruled that the action of Dredd Scott’s master to free him was invalid. Taney based this ruling on the fact that the Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens, and on a strict construction of the Constitution that would not admit to the creation or recognition of rights that were specifically discountenanced in the Constitution. In the majority opinion, Taney also expressed the sentiments of the majority of the Americans in slave states at that time—that Negroes were “regarded as . . . inferior . . . and [had] no rights” under the Constitution. Both the holding and the rationale of the Dredd Scott case was widely criticized then, and was one of the causes of the Civil War. Dissatisfaction with that decision became one of the points of debate between Lincoln and Douglas in Illinois in 1858 and in the U. S. presidential campaign in 1860. Passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (in 1865, 1868 and 1870 respectively overturned the Dredd Scott holding. The national struggle to overturn the mindset of the nation that blacks were “inferior” has taken longer.

The City of Frederick repudiates this prejudiced and unenlightened viewpoint that plagued the nation for over a hundred years. The City of Frederick affirms the equality of all humans, regardless of their race, color or national origin. The Dredd Scott opinion represented a national sin that tarnished America for over two centuries. Taney’s authorship of this opinion is not to be celebrated, but the historical importance of that opinion, national debate that ensued, and the ultimate progress in civil rights that it sparked—all make it important to learn and remember the historical context of the case.

After the commencement of the Civil War, the Chief Justice held unconstitutional the act of President Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Tension between the Executive and Judicial branches of the government were perhaps never greater than during the Civil War years until the death of Taney in 1864.

Dedicated December 2007, the sesquicentennial year after the Dredd Scott decision.

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