America in the 1850s

The Supreme Court Decides

Who was Roger Taney?

Born in 1777—the year that George Washington and the Continental Army went to Valley Forge to spend the winter—Roger Taney was a Maryland lawyer who became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1836. He was nominated by Andrew Jackson.

Taney brought an intriguing mixture of qualities and qualifications to his work. He was born into a slave-holding family that profited handsomely from the “peculiar” institution, but he freed his slaves in his middle years. Though it was the Western man Andrew Jackson that brought him to the Supreme Court, Taney was really an East Coast aristocrat. He married a sister of Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” By 1857, Taney had been Chief Justice for twenty-one years, and he had seen questions and agitations over the slave issue disturb the nation several times. Given his longevity and his perspective, it was likely that Taney would be able to render a more clear-eyed decision than almost any other jurist. Yet he fumbled completely.


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