The Maryland Corner: “Redeeming Roger Taney”


(from the forthcoming issue of The Terrapin Times, the first installment of our new feature, dedicated to important political figures, past and present, on the Right from Maryland, tentatively called The Maryland Corner)


Americans have a way of spinning history to bolster our national mythology. JFK’s foreign policy was nightmarish — to speak nothing of his personal life —, yet we extol him. FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court, interned Japanese-Americans in numbers that dwarf the count of unfortunate souls at Guantánamo, and eagerly collaborated with the murderous Stalin, but idolizing him as the conqueror of the Depression and scourge of the Axis powers is much more palatable than embracing the truth. 


Then there is Abraham Lincoln. Ignoring that he needlessly sanctioned the bloodiest war in American history and put the kibosh on the important question of whether states, sovereign when they entered into the great experiment in liberty, could secede and reassert their autonomy, we revere the sixteenth president as a great liberator, the savior of the Union. We relegate Maryland native and Lincoln antagonist Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to the deepest pits of Hell for his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford.


Yet, ironically, as we begin at least four years under our first Black president, a man esteemed as the new Lincoln, we ought to look for inspiration to no less a man than the estimable author of that loathsome Dred Scott decision.


Roger Brooke Taney, of Calvert County, was hardly perfect; he was, however, more complex than many would care to admit. His opining that Blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and thus ineligible for citizenship, is detestable. Nevertheless, he had personal qualms with the “peculiar institution,” and manumitted his own slaves. A dual-federalist, he stood firmly between ardent states’ rights champions and the advocates of centralization, proud of his Southern heritage and a lover of Maryland, but a loyal American who sought the preservation of the Union. 


Most important today, as our government continues to expropriate powers at the cost of our God-given liberties, Taney stood up to Lincoln’s antipathetic attitude toward the Constitution. After the mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, to the president’s consternation, proclaimed that they would permit no more Union troops to transfer through their respective jurisdictions, Lincoln instructed General Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus within the area of the military line. 


Obeying the governor’s orders, Lt. John Merryman, of the Baltimore County Horse Guards, burned bridges to prevent additional Pennsylvania soldiers from entering Maryland; not long thereafter, he was arrested on charges of treason. Numerous Maryland legislators soon found themselves incarcerated for no obvious reason. 


Enter Roger Taney. Presiding over the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, Taney, in Ex parte Merryman, reaffirmed that the president lacks authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus — a power expressly delegated to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. A defiant Lincoln persisted, widening the scope of the territory wherein the writ was held in abeyance. Employing arguments frightfully comparable to — but exceedingly more eloquent than — those to which we have grown accustomed in this tumultuous decade, Lincoln asked rhetorically of Congress, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Orwellian reverence for the rule of law at its finest.


Taney’s comprehension of liberty was incomplete, perhaps unforgivably so. That President Obama intends to try to suspend the writ of habeas corpus is dubious. However, given Obama’s vision for expanding government’s role in the economy, embrace of the Pax Americana ideology, and, more relevant, support for the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA “compromise,” one is right to fear for his liberty. If we look beyond his imperfections, in Roger Taney we see a Marylander of whom we should be proud and whose spirited defense of the Constitution we should aspire to mimic. 

Advertisements

4 Responses

  1. […] baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and […]

  2. […] man who would not let the South secede: I’m baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and […]

  3. […] entirety and respond as appropriate. I’m baffled by the rise of anti-Lincoln sentiment on some quarters of the Right. Freeing the slaves ought to count for something. Moreover, letting the South go and […]

  4. […] other wonders, the forthcoming edition includes my “Dred Not: Redeeming Roger B. Taney,” the first installment in our new regular feature, The Maryland Room; a review of Janet Holl […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: