After John Eager Howard, the most imposing statue on Mount Vernon Square is Roger B. Taney. This statue always has left me guessing. Taney is holding a scroll in his right hand while his left is grasping the arm of a chair. I suppose his judicial robe is hiding the right arm of the chair. This statue always seemed tilted for that reason. The Dred Scott Decision clouds his history. Nevertheless, he was a brilliant jurist.
On March 15, 1857, Taney delivered a pro-slavery decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case—marking how he would be remembered historically. Scott, a slave in the free state of Illinois and free territory of Wisconsin, wanted his freedom when he moved to Missouri, a slave state. Taney ruled against Scott, declaring that African Americans were not United States citizens and, thus, had no right to sue. This chief justice also stated that Congress could not forbid slavery in U.S. territories. Taney’s inflammatory wording included a statement that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Despite receiving public backlash, especially from Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, Taney held firm. On June 16, 1858, at the Illinois Republican convention, Lincoln, then an aspiring senator, gave the famous “House Divided” speech, stating, “What Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or 1,000 slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state.” Ironically, Lincoln was sworn in by Taney, who remained on the bench for 28 years, until his death on December 12, 186, at the age of 87, in Washington, D.C.