The man behind "Dred Scott", and his clash with Lincoln.
Even the most reasonably literate American may find it difficult to name more than three of the past chief justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. But of those three, one of them will almost certainly be Roger Brooke Taney, the author, in 1857, of the court's most reviled decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Born in 1777 into an Annapolis family that had held land and slaves in Maryland since the 1660s, Taney had what one fellow lawyer, William Pinckney, irritably called the "infernal apostolic manner" of a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But Taney was also a talented lawyer, rising in 1827 to become attorney general of Maryland; three years later, he was named U.S. attorney general by President Andrew Jackson.
It may seem odd to find Taney allied politically with Jackson, the paladin of the American common man. But the Jacksonian democracy was administered by the cream of America's planter aristocracy--and that included Taney. In 1833, Jackson declared political war on the Second Bank of the United States, a fight that was the keystone of Jackson's populist strategy to turn back the tide of the Industrial Revolution in America. And Taney was the only man in the president's cabinet who supported Jackson's move to defund the bank (by withdrawing federal tax-revenue deposits). The attorney general's reward was a Supreme Court nomination in 1834 and confirmation as chief justice in 1836.
In "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney," James F. Simon, who teaches at New York Law School, finds the roots of Taney's opinions as chief justice in this passionate embrace of Jacksonian democracy. And to give it particularly sharp contrast, Mr. Simon plays Taney's career against the career of the man with whom Taney was doomed to collide: Abraham Lincoln. Nearly everything about Lincoln ran in the opposite direction to Taney's universe, and they ultimately came to smash over slavery. It was Lincoln's abiding conviction that slavery was a violation of natural law, an iniquity that the Framers of the Constitution had intended to tolerate only long enough for it to die out peaceably. The federal government was obliged, Lincoln thought, to prod the process along with every weapon short of direct interference in the slave states.
Read the entire article on the Wall Street Opinion Journal website (new window will open).