What follows is an abridgment of an article written by a descendant of Chief Justice Taney to clarify the legal question presented and facts considered. Taney was 12 years old when Washington died and lived long enough to see the Constitution overthrown by military force. It is said that his arrest was ordered for defying Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.
Chief Justice Taney and Dred Scott
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “tawney”), 1777-1864, is mostly known for his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case in 1857. Largely forgotten is his 30 years on the bench of the Supreme Court, and his steadfast understanding that the Constitution is a compact among sovereign States. In his view, most matters of importance were the domain of States, not the federal government, and the Court was to interpret the Constitution according to the original constitutional meaning when it was first adopted.
The primary question the Court was to decide in the Dred Scott case was whether black people in the United States were “citizens” of the United States. It must be recalled that in the antebellum United States people were first citizens of the individual States, and by virtue of that, the United States.
Taney’s Court was to determine whether people of African descent were actual members of the American political community under the original intent and meaning of the Constitution. His study and understanding reflected that the United States in 1789 were primarily white, Anglo-Saxon people and black people were not part of what was an original political creation of Europeans. The racial viewpoint of the latter toward African people was primary in his consideration.
He and his Court saw that in all States, North and South, laws restricted relations between the white and black races because it was widely believed that “a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white and black race.” Clearly, this is in general an accurate assessment of 17th and 18th century colonial law.
The Court also explored whether the Declaration of Independence proposition that “all men are created equal” altered the legal and social status of black people in America. Taney argued that if understood in its proper historical context where blacks and whites occupied different legal and social spheres, “it is too clear that black people were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this Declaration” in 1789.
It was clear then as it is now, that the Declaration of Independence stood only for the proposition that the American colonists, as Englishmen, had the same rights to self-determination and self-government as their British kinsmen. The Founders of course provided for future amendments to their work, but Taney and his Court were considering this legal question in 1857.
Taney’s Court also investigated whether the Constitution itself had changed the status of black people so as to make them part of the American political and legal community. Taney noted that as the Preamble declared that the United States was formed “by the people” – which was those who were members of the different political communities in the several States forming the United States. Taney concluded that as most States, North and South, had long distinguished between blacks and whites in terms of social and legal rights, and the Constitution itself implicitly distinguishing between the races in its Migration and Importation clause (permitting the abolition of the slave trade after 1808) and the Fugitive Slaves clause, black people were simply not intended as part of “the people” described in the Constitution.
As Taney reviewed federal statutes to further divine the Founders’ minds in 1789 and what they considered “the people of the United States,” he found two federal laws passed within a few years of ratification. One was the first naturalization law of 1790, which provided that only “free, white persons” could become citizens and therefore this was the political community. The other was the first militia law of 1792, which required the enrollment of every “free, able-bodied white male citizen.”
Though one could contest Chief Justice Taney’s interpretations at that time, eminent historian Carl Brent Swisher wrote in his well-respected biography of Taney that his decision was based upon an “accurate portrayal of relations between the two races in communities where both lived in considerable numbers” at the time it was written.
Thus, investigating this important question in 1857, Chief Justice Taney concluded that people of African descent were not citizens of the United States, and therefore the Dred Scott case did not fall under federal jurisdiction. To rule otherwise, Taney warned, “would require that the Court give to the words of the Constitution more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted.”
Such a “liberal construction” would exceed the Supreme Court’s authority.