Roger and Me | THE POLITICUS

Roger and Me

You will lose you mind when cousins aren't two of a kind

"All these folks worried about erasing history when the Confederate statues come down will be thrilled to learn about the existence of books."
 
Jamil Smith

Historians inform us that in most instances, Roger Brooke Taney was a pretty good jurist. He was also a bit ahead of his time with respect to the subject of the "peculiar institution" of slavery - at least in his youth. When, as a young man, he inherited a plantation filled with human beings living in unrewarded bondage, he gradually set them free via a process that was known as "manumitting". He even provided a pension for the older ones who had no hope of finding manual labor out in the world. That would seem to me evidence of a decent human being. Not many former slave owners were as kind and as generous as that. The overwhelming majority of elderly slaves were left to fend for themselves in a dangerous and hostile world. So far, so good.
 
His position on the Supreme Court was unprecedented for a few reasons: Appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836, he was the first Catholic to serve on that bench. He was also one of the longest-serving. When he died in October of 1864, he had been there for almost twenty-nine years. Roger Taney should have an honored place in American history, but he does not. And the reason for this is the horrible fact that he authored what is - beyond a molecule of debate - the worst Supreme Court decision in the history of this nation. Wait, it gets weirder than that (at least for my purposes). Are you ready for this?
 
I'M RELATED TO THIS KNUCKLEHEAD!
 
There's not much history on my father's side of the family. As far as anyone can tell, they were just a bunch of drunken Irishmen fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s. It's a different story as far as my mother's side is concerned. Placed on the branches on my maternal family tree are the doctor who set the broken ankle of John Wilkes Booth late on the night he murdered Abraham Lincoln (Samuel Mudd), a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Charles Carroll), the founder of the state of Maryland (Lord Baltimore) - and a number of other people - some praiseworthy; some outright rascals. Put me in the "rascal" category if you wish.

Taney, like so many of my ancestors, was from the state of Maryland. Although he didn't resign from the court at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was decidedly pro-confederacy. He was such a thorn in Lincoln's side that, for a time, the president considered jailing him. When Cousin Roger died suddenly a month before the election of 1864, Honest Abe made no public comment, which was probably just as well. Apparently Lincoln - one of the most amiable men ever to live in the Executive Mansion - detested Roger Taney with a passion.

Dred Scott

The decision that completely destroyed the legacy of my distant cousin involved a case that was called, "Scott v. Sanford". Dred Scott was a slave who was transported by his "owners" to the "free" state of Illinois and sued for his freedom. For over a decade, his case slowly moved its way up the court hierarchy until it finally reached the Supremes in 1857. The justices voted  - seven to two - that Scott had no right to freedom. Even by the unenlightened standards of the day, it was an appalling decision.  Most historians believe that it was the spark which would ignite the war between the states four years later. One of the nine, Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, was so completely unnerved by the decision, that he resigned from the court in disgust. Good for him.

To make matters quite worse, Taney decreed that a slave owner could take his "property" into the territories, and he furthered the notion that, black people "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." As a fellow Catholic, Cousin Roger should have known better. Honestly.

In a bittersweet coda, shortly after the decision was announced, Scott's "master" (in this case a woman) chose to set him free, He had less than a year to enjoy that freedom, dying on September 17, 1858 at the age of fifty-nine. 

T'ain't no more Taney

Flash forward one-hundred and fifty-nine years later, in an act that would have given Dred Scott a decided flash of schadenfreude, the governor of the state of Maryland, Larry Hogan, ordered that the statue of Taney, which had prominently sat in front of the statehouse at Annapolis since 1870, be removed. Governor Hogan understands all-too-well that America is entering a Brave New World where causes like white supremacy have no place in the cultural melting pot that the United States is supposed to be. America is changing, and, like all mass changes in history, a significant segment of the population are not taking this inevitable social evolution very well - as was evident by the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago today. Someone remarked on television late last night that no Jewish kid should be expected to attend Adolf Hitler High School. Why can't we treat our brothers and sisters who are the descendants of slaves with the same respect?

A few right wing publications today are criticizing the Democrats for not advocating the renaming of public places in West Virginia bearing the name of the late Senator (and former KKK member) Robert Byrd. I offer an exasperated sigh and a much-needed lesson in American history:

Robert Byrd

Yes, the Democrats were - at one time - the party of the racist Dixiecrats. For over a century most southerners could not bear to align themselves with the party of "that bearded bastard that freed our slaves". Then in 1964 and 1965 respectively, President Johnson passed into law the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Within less than a decade, all of those racist Southern Dems fled the party like frightened little mice.

POP QUIZ: Which party did they flee to? Which party welcomed them with loving and open arms?

Ironically, Byrd was one of the few who didn't leave the Democrats. That's because he renounced his Jim Crow roots (decades before his death) in several painful and public mea culpas. His conversion to light cannot be dismissed as mere political expediency; West Virginia's African American population has never been noticeably large. He deserves to be publicly honored.

Robert Byrd overcame.

The political heirs of the Dixiecrats claim that the mass migration to the GOP in the sixties and early seventies was simply about economics, that it had nothing to do with race. Bullpippy! It had EVERYTHING to do with race.

Robert E. Lee

There are no statues of Hitler anywhere on this troubled planet, and yet our historical knowledge of him has not been "washed away". We know about him today just as they will know about Robert E. Lee Lee a century from now. A statue is not a history lesson. It is a remembrance of honor. Lee was an officer in the United States army, educated at West Point, who led a counter army in war against the government he had sworn allegiance to. In that ensuing war, 624,000 human beings were slaughtered. Where I come from, Bobby Lee would be labeled "a terrorist"; Where I come from, he would be disparaged as "a traitor". He killed more people at Gettysburg than Osama bin laden killed on September 11, 2001.

Should Lee be remembered? Absolutely.

Should Lee be honored? Absolutely not.


Let's replace the statue of Roger Brooke Taney with one of Dred Scott. That works for me!

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

SUGGESTED READING:

With Malice Toward None
by Stephen B. Oates

By far, the best one-volume biography of Lincoln ever written.

 

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