This was how the statue of Roger Brooke Taney looked on the grounds of the Maryland State House in Annapolis until about midnight, August 17, 2017. Then it looked this:
It was a metaphorical hanging for a man whose legacy has come to be defined by the worst Supreme Court decision in American history –the Dred Scott case (1857), which denied blacks any rights as citizens, attempted to preserve the institution of slavery, and arguably contributed as much as any other single event to the coming of the Civil War.
Yet Taney was also a complicated figure. Now, his statues now being removed in the wake of the 2017 tragedy at Charlottesville, but in ways that raise important questions, especially for graduates of Dickinson College. Taney (Class of 1795) was a slaveholder who voluntarily freed his own slaves, defended a noted abolitionist in court and once called slavery “a blot on our national character.” He was the country’s second longest serving chief justice (1835-1864) and widely respected as a jurist in his own era. He was also a Unionist, who never joined the Confederacy, and tried, in his own cantankerous and polarizing way, to rein in President Abraham Lincoln’s aggressive use of presidential war powers.
But there is little doubt that Taney was an incredibly controversial figure whose memorials, like the one in Annapolis authorized in 1867 and erected in 1872, were designed to make post-war political statements. That is why figures like former University of Maryland college student Colin Byrd have been lobbying since 2015 to have the Taney statue either removed or supplemented with other memorials to African Americans (like Harriet Tubman, also from Maryland) or with contextual wayside markers that could explain his troubled legacy. In 2015, Maryland governor Larry Hogan called such efforts “political correctness run amok,” but in 2017, he suddenly changed his mind, and voted along with a majority of the State House Trust Board to have Taney’s 13-foot bronze memorial carted away and stored out of sight.
Here are some additional resources for those who want to understand this surprisingly complex and fast-changing debate over history and memory:
- Corey Brooks (York College) op-ed on Roger Taney statue (2015)
- Video profile of Colin Byrd, student activist from University of Maryland
- Economist magazine blog post on Taney statue removal