The US House of Representatives recently voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol building–including a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert B. Taney (from 1836-1864). Taney was an unapologetic white supremacist, infuriated by Northern attacks on slavery, which he considered crucial to white Southern life & values.
Hearing Taney’s name brought back a chilling personal memory. When I was in 10th grade, I wrote my first real term paper on the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Taney wrote the (7-2) majority opinion, one of the worst and most inhumane decisions the US Supreme Court has ever made.
Dred Scott was a slave in the slave state of Missouri, who then sued for his freedom after living in the free state of Illinois. On March 3, 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not US citizens. Taney wrote that black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”
In the 10th grade, this decision left me stunned. Until then, I thought there was such a thing as Truth with a capital T. I thought that of course the Supreme Court made decisions to assure fairness and justice, that politics and personal prejudices did not take priority over honest compassion on all the important issues they had to decide.
The Dred Scott decision fortunately did have the effect of strengthening the anti-slavery Republican Party, and helped elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Southern response to Lincoln’s election was to form the Confederacy, secede, and fire cannon at the US Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay in April 1861, starting the Civil War in an effort to preserve slavery.
In announcing the recent decision to remove Confederate statuary from the halls of Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “The House is taking a long-overdue and historic step to ensure that individuals we honor in our Capitol represent our nation’s highest ideals and not the worst in its history.”