Death came for Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the United States Supreme Court 150 years ago. Nominated as Chief Justice by his friend President Andrew Jackson and had sat on the court for 28 years. Although he had authored many important decisions, he is remembered today only for one: Dred Scott. 87 years old at the time of his death, Taney, a slave owner, had mirrored the tragic trajectory of the views of the South in regard to slavery in his own life. As a young man he regarded slavery as a blot on our national character, as he said in his opening argument in defense of a Methodist minister accused in 1819 of inciting slave insurrections. He emancipated his own slaves. However, by the time he authored the Dred Scott decision in 1857 he would write:
It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Taney thought that the decision in Dred Scott would settle the slavery issue in regard to the territories and remove it from politics. Instead the decision inflamed public opinion North and South and manifestly helped bring on the Civil War. Taney lived to see his nation riven by Civil War and an administration in power dedicated to restoring the Union and abolishing slavery, and more than willing to ignore the paper edicts of Taney’s court when necessary. Old and sick, Taney remained on the bench, unwilling to have Lincoln name his successor, a living relic of a bygone era. The best epitaph for Taney I have ever read was that given by Justice Antonin Scalia in his magnificent dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: