The Death of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney: “Better late than never”
October 12, 1864. Upon hearing of the death of the Chief Justice, diarist from New York City George Templeton Strong wrote, “The Hon. old Roger B. Taney has earned the gratitude of his country by dying at last. Better late than never.” (1) Taney’s death on October 12, 1864 concluded his 28-year tenure as head of the United States Supreme Court — the second longest serving Chief Justice in American history — and ended nearly a decade of misfortune for the Justice who died penniless and seemingly without a friend in Washington.
Although he was considered a capable jurist who led the court through the troubling decades leading to the Civil War, Taney fell into disrepute, particularly in the North, through his authoring the majority opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. The case, which centered upon the status of a slave who had been taken into free territory, which among other things, defined the role of the federal government regarding the expansion of slavery. Taking perhaps the most extreme position possible, Taney asserted that the government did not have the authority to restrict slavery in the territories, even going so far as to invalidate the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
The ruling outraged abolitionists, emboldened slave-holding interests in the South, and became a principal issue of contention in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Lincoln, having argued vigorously against the Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case, and more particularly against Taney’s written opinion, arrived in the White House with a powerful adversary leader at the Supreme Court: the Chief Justice who swore him in as president. In asserting extraordinary executive powers during the crisis of Secession and the Civil War, Lincoln largely disregarded Taney’s attempts to restrain executive power, most notably in the case of Ex Parte Merryman in 1861, in which Taney maintained that the authority to suspend habeas corpus rested with Congress, and not the president.
By the time of his death in October 1864, Taney and his Court had been rendered largely impotent. Lincoln nominated as Taney’s successor, a member of his “team of rivals,” Salmon P. Chase, who had served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury until June of 1864. The nomination was approved by the Senate the day it was received.
Roger Brooke Taney was buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland. While dedicating a bust of Taney at the courthouse in Frederick in 1931, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes summarized the circumstances of Taney’s 87 years: “He was born in the year following the Declaration of Independence, as the fortunes of the Revolution hung in the balance, and he died in the closing days of the Civil War.” (2)
1.) George Templeton Strong, The Diary of George Templeton Strong, 1820-1875, entry for October 13, 1864.
2.) Mark S. Hudson, “Chief Justices Visit Frederick,” The Journal of the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland, (Spring 2004): p. 43.
Submitted by Mark S. Hudson, Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society