Taney, Roger B.

Born: 1777-03-17 Calvert County, Maryland

Died: 1864-10-12 Washington, D.C.

Roger B. Taney was lawyer, state legislator, state attorney general, U.S. attorney general, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Taney grew up in a slaveholding, aristocratic Catholic family in Maryland. He graduated from Dickinson College, in 1795 and gained admission to the Maryland bar in 1799. That same year he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates and held that position until 1800. In 1801, he moved to Frederick, Maryland, where he continued the practice of law and in 1827, Taney was appointed attorney general of Maryland. In 1828, as chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee, he worked to secure Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency, and in 1831, President Jackson appointed Taney as attorney general of the United States. While in that position, Taney influenced Jackson to veto legislation renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. In 1833, Jackson appointed Taney secretary of the treasury, and it was Taney, as treasurer, who announced that government funds would no longer be placed in the Second Bank of the United States. Upon the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835, Jackson appointed Taney as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Taney was chief justice of the Supreme Court during the famous case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), and he authored the majority opinion for the Court. In his decision, Taney declared that African Americans in the United States could not be citizens and therefore could not sue in a federal court. The lower federal courts had erred in accepting jurisdiction over the case. Furthermore, Taney argued that since Dred Scott had been born into slavery, an act of Congress (the Missouri Compromise) could not have made him free while he resided in a territory, because Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery from the territories. The Dred Scott case exacerbated sectional differences within the United States, and many believe that it accelerated the nation’s descent into Civil War.

Chief Justice Taney administered the oath of office to Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in March 1861. With the outbreak of war, Taney was openly hostile to President Lincoln and privately believed that the federal government should not have used force to prevent the South from leaving the Union. In Ex Parte Merryman (1861), Taney argued that only Congress, and not the president, could suspend the writ of habeas corpus, but his decision received bitter criticism.

Kermit Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 857-59; Sandra F. VanBurkleo and Bonnie Speck, "Taney, Roger Brooke," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21: 296-303; Timothy S. Huebner, The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 32-42; Allen Johnson, ed., Walker Lewis, Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965); Mark E. Neely Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), 301-2; James F. Simon, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.