Open main menu

Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Taney, Roger Brooke

Appletons' Taney Roger Brooke.jpg
Appletons' Taney Roger Brooke signature.jpg

TANEY, Roger Brooke (taw'-ny), jurist, b. in Calvert county, Md., 17 March, 1777; d. in Washington, D. C., 12 Oct., 1864. He was the son of a Roman Catholic planter, of a family that came to Maryland in the early emigration from England, who had been educated in St. Omer, France, and Bruges, United Netherlands, in the Jesuit college, and was frequently elected to the house of delegates. The son was graduated at Dickinson college in 1795. He read law in Annapolis with Jeremiah Chase, then a judge of the general court, and was admitted to the bar in 1799. His father, who was ambitious of political honors for his son, persuaded him to begin practice in his native county, where, in the autumn of the same year, he was elected to the house of delegates. He was the youngest member in that body, yet was distinguished for the maturity of his opinions and his dialectic powers. He was defeated at the next election by a Republican, and in March, 1801, removed to Frederick. Although he was unknown in that part of the state, his acuteness, thoroughness, and eloquence brought him a lucrative practice, and before many years passed he was retained in important and intricate cases, and confronted the leaders of the Maryland bar. He was a candidate for the house of delegates on the Federalist ticket in 1803, but was defeated. On 7 Jan., 1806, he married Anne Phebe Charlton Key, sister of Francis Scott Key, who had been his fellow law-student. In 1811 he defended Gen. James Wilkinson on his trial before a court-martial, thereby sharing the odium that then attached to that officer, yet refusing to take a fee for his services. During the war with Great Britain he led the wing of the Federal party that upheld the policy of the government, and was a candidate for congress, failing of election by a few votes. He was sent to the state senate in 1816, and drew up many of the bills that were passed during his term of service. He endured the disapprobation of his neighbors by courageously appearing in 1819 in defence of Jacob Gruber, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, who in a camp-meeting had condemned slavery in bitter language, and who was indicted as an inciter of insurrection among the negroes. In his opening argument Taney declared of slavery that “while it continues, it is a blot on our national character.” In 1821 he was counsel in the important case of Brown vs. Kennedy, which involved the question of the original proprietary title to lands that had been reclaimed from the navigable waters of Maryland, and in the following year in one connected with the law of charitable trusts. He removed in 1823 to Baltimore, where the death of William Pinkney, the retirement of Luther Martin, and the decease of other eminent lawyers left him at the head of the bar until William Wirt came in 1829 to divide with him that distinction. With many other Federals of the south, Taney passed over into the Democratic party, and supported the candidacy of Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1824. In 1826 he argued the case of Ringgold vs. Ringgold, in which the doctrine of trusts was discussed, and, with Wirt, represented the state of Maryland in the Lord Baltimore case before the U. S. supreme court. In 1827 he was appointed attorney-general of Maryland, and on 27 Dec., 1831, he succeeded John M. Berrien as attorney-general of the United States. He became President Jackson's most trusted counsellor, and encouraged and sustained him in his determination to remove the government deposits from the United States bank. There were only two members of the cabinet that approved this action, and when William J. Duane hesitated to carry out the president's decree he was removed and Taney was appointed secretary of the treasury. He entered upon the duties of the office on 24 Sept., 1833, and two days afterward issued the order for the removal of the deposits on 1 Oct. The bank therefore called in its loans and refused accommodation, locking up a large part of the currency, and producing a financial stringency that affected all classes, for which the president was held responsible by the opposition. Sec. Taney was a special object of vituperation and scorn, because he was supposed to have been the “pliant instrument” of the president in his arbitrary purpose from motives of selfish ambition. His nomination to the office was sent to the senate for confirmation on 23 June, 1834, having been withheld till near the close of the session, which, owing to the subject most prominently brought up in debate, has been known as the “panic session.” On 24 June the hostile majority rejected the appointment, it being the first time that a president's selection of a cabinet officer had not been confirmed. On the following day Mr. Taney sent in his resignation, which was accepted by President Jackson in a letter expressing gratitude for his patriotic and disinterested aid during the crisis. In January, 1835, on the retirement of Gabriel Duval, associate justice of the U. S. supreme court, President Jackson named Mr. Taney for the vacant judgeship; but the senate refused to ratify the nomination. During the ensuing year the political complexion of the senate was changed, and when, after the death of John Marshall, the president, on 26 Dec., 1835, nominated Mr. Taney to be chief justice of the United States, he was confirmed on 15 March, 1836, by 29 votes against 15, notwithstanding the denunciations of Henry Clay and other political opponents. He took his seat on the bench as circuit judge at Baltimore in April, beginning his functions by abolishing the custom of giving preliminary instructions to the grand jury. In January, 1837, he presided over the full bench.

His first decisions showed divergence between his view of the constitution and that of his predecessor, who had been more and more drawn to allow a wide scope to the powers of congress and to limit the sphere of state sovereignty. In the case of the City of New York vs. Miln, Chief-Justice Taney and the majority of the court decided that an act of the legislature of New York requiring masters of vessels to make reports of passengers on arriving was a police regulation that did not interfere with the power of congress to regulate foreign commerce. In the case of Briscoe vs. the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the court reversed the decision of Marshall, who held that the act establishing the bank was a violation of the provision of the constitution that restrains states from emitting bills of credit. In the Charles-river-bridge suit he delivered a judgment under which state legislatures were free to authorize bridges, railroads, and similar improvements without regard to implied contracts in former grants and monopolies. These decisions almost impelled Justice Joseph Story to resign, and caused Chancellor James Kent to say that he had lost confidence in the constitutional guardianship of the supreme court. In the case of disputed boundaries between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the chief justice, dissenting from the judgment of the court, held that the Federal tribunal had no power to decide questions of political jurisdiction between sovereign states. In 1839 he delivered the opinion in the case of the Bank of Augusta vs. Earle, in which he laid down the principle that corporations chartered in one state may make contracts in others by the comity of nations. The claim of the proprietors of East Jersey to the oyster-fisheries in Raritan river was disallowed on the ground that fishery rights had passed with the powers of government into the hands of the state. In the case of Prigg vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the chief justice for the first time pronounced a state law unconstitutional. Prigg, as agent for a Maryland slave-holder, had seized and carried back to her master an escaped female slave, for which he was indicted under a state law, which made it a penal act to carry a negro or mulatto by force out of the state. Justice Story delivered the opinion, which declared the law unconstitutional because the remedy for fugitives from labor is vested exclusively in congress. Chief-Justice Taney held, however, that states could pass laws for the rendition of escaped servants, but not to impair the right of the master to seize his fugitive slave, which he declared to be the law of each state. He concurred with Justice Story and Justice John McLean, and protected the rights of the Federal government in the Holmes habeas corpus case, in which he denied the authority of the governor of Vermont to extradite a fugitive from justice, because all foreign intercourse belongs to the Federal government. In 1847 the court decided, in the Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire license cases, that a state can regulate or prohibit the retail sale of wines or spirits that congress has authorized to be imported. In the Massachusetts and New York passenger cases the chief justice delivered an opinion that the state authorities could impose a head-tax on immigrants, on the grounds that the power of congress to regu- late commerce is not exclusive, and that persons are not subjects of commerce. In 1849 he declined to pronounce judgment as to which of the contending governments of Rhode Island was the legitimate one, as it belonged to the political and not to the judicial department of the government to determine that question. In 1845 he upheld the constitutionality of the law of congress that extended admiralty jurisdiction over the lakes and connecting navigable waters, although English precedents limited it to tide-water.

In the midst of the excitement that attended the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill (30 May, 1854), and the strife of free-soilers and slave-holders, the Dred Scott case, to which President Buchanan alluded in his inaugural message, came before the supreme court for decision. It involved the question whether congress had the power to exclude slavery from the territories. The case was presented in 1854, and, after being twice argued, was finally decided in 1857. The opinion of the court was written by Chief-Justice Taney, who entered into an elaborate historical exposition of the status of the negro, the other five judges who concurred in the decision delivering separate opinions. He held that the plaintiff in error, Dred Scott, was debarred from seeking a remedy in the U. S. circuit court for Missouri, on the ground that he was not a citizen of that state, and enunciated the general principle that negroes could not become citizens by the act of any state or of the United States, since, before the adoption of the constitution, the colonies had special laws for colored people, whether slave or free, and congress had not authorized their naturalization or enrolled them in the militia. “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” He held, further, that the Missouri compromise and other laws of congress inhibiting slavery in the territories of the United States were unconstitutional, and that whatever measure of freedom Dred Scott may have acquired by his residence in Illinois, he lost by being subsequently removed into the territory of Wisconsin, and by his return thence to Missouri. This deliverance, made two days after the inauguration of President Buchanan, produced intense excitement throughout the country and a strong reaction in favor of the anti-slavery party. The chief justice replied to the strictures that it provoked, and especially to a direct attack on the supreme court made by William H. Seward in the senate, in a supplementary opinion explaining and justifying his legal deductions. In the following year a case that arose under the fugitive-slave law of 1850 came before Chief-Justice Taney. Sherman M. Booth, who had been sentenced by the U. S. district court for aiding in the escape of a negro from slavery, was released on habeas corpus proceedings by the supreme court of Wisconsin, which refused to take cognizance of the subsequent mandates of the supreme court of the United States in the matter. In reviewing the case Chief-Justice Taney affirmed the constitutionality of the fugitive-slave law, and declared that “so long as this constitution shall endure, this tribunal must exist with it, deciding in the peaceful forms of judicial procedure the angry and irritating controversies between sovereignties which in other countries have been decided by the arbitrament of force.” The reversal of the judgment of the state court called forth a declaration of the legislature of Wisconsin that the government of the United States was not the final judge of the extent of its powers, but that the states, as parties to the compact, have an equal right to determine infractions of their rights and the mode of their redress, and that the judgment of the Federal court was “void and of no force.” The chief question at issue in the presidential election of 1860 was whether the Dred Scott decision, throwing all the territories of the United States open to slavery and denying to colored persons any standing in courts of law, should be maintained as the true construction of the constitution. On 13 March, 1861, Chief-Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the court in mandamus proceedings brought by the state of Kentucky against the governor of Ohio to compel him to cause the arrest and delivery of Willis Lago, a free man of color who, while under indictment for assisting a slave to escape, had fled from Kentucky. He affirmed the right of Kentucky to demand the person of the fugitive, and the obligation of Ohio to render him up, yet denied the jurisdiction of the U. S. court in the case.

When, after the secession of the southern states, martial law was proclaimed in Maryland, Chief-Justice Taney, on application of John Merryman, arrested by order of Gen. George Cadwalader, ordered the release of the prisoner, issued an attachment against the officer, and filed an opinion, to be laid before President Lincoln, in which he denied the right of the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, affirming that such power is vested in congress alone. When congress passed an act to withhold three per cent. of the salaries of government officers, Chief-Justice Taney, on 16 Feb., 1863, sent a letter to the secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, pointing out the unconstitutionally of this law so far as it affected the judges of the U. S. courts. In the matter of a seizure of contraband goods, he delivered on 3 June, 1863, an opinion at nisi prius, in which he censured the duplicity of the government detectives, ordered the price of the goods to be restored to the smugglers, and mulcted the provost-marshal and his assistants in damages and costs. Chief-Justice Taney died on the same day on which the state of Maryland abolished slavery. His judicial opinions and decisions are contained in the “Supreme Court Reports” of Benjamin R. Curtis, Benjamin C. Howard, and Jeremiah S. Black. His opinions as a circuit judge from 1836 till 1861 were reported by his son-in-law, James Mason Campbell. He wrote Andrew Jackson's farewell address on retiring from the presidency. At the age of seventy-seven he began an autobiography, which he brought down to 1801, and which forms the introduction to a “Memoir” by Samuel Tyler (Baltimore, 1872).