Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864)

Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864)

During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Roger B. Taney (taw-nee) served as the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Although Taney had freed his own slaves in 1818, he felt slavery necessary as long as African Americans lived in the United States. His decision in Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) is the one for which he is most remembered. Essentially, the decision argued that Scott was a slave, not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court. Taney further argued that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories and that African Americans could not become citizens.

The Dred Scott decision, more than any other legal opinion in U.S. history, was divisive in the extreme, endangering the authority of the Supreme Court. Lincoln believed that implicit in Taney’s decision was the doctrine that “the Declaration of Independence has no application” to African Americans. He immediately sided with the dissenting opinion, and within the year accused Taney of conspiring to nationalize slavery.

Taney performed the swearing in of Lincoln as president on March 4, 1861. Almost immediately, in May, Taney issued a decision in Ex parte Merryman denying Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, arguing that only Congress had the power to do so. He viewed the war as a military usurpation, and Republicans feared that he would declare the Emancipation Proclamation illegal. Taney wrote in 1863 that the “supremacy of the military power over the civil seems to be established.”


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