On March 28th, 1836, Roger B. Taney became the fifth Chief Justice of the United States. He succeeded John Marshall, arguably the most consequential justice in the history of the Supreme Court. Although Taney would achieve much during his time on the Court, history would not judge Taney’s tenure nearly as positively as that of his predecessor.
Taney was appointed by President Andrew Jackson, with whom he had been closely allied throughout his career. Taney had supported Jackson in both the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, and had served as Jackson’s Maryland campaign manager in 1828.
Jackson rewarded Taney’s loyalty when, in 1831, he made him Attorney General. Taney would play a crucial role in Jackson’s “Bank War” by encouraging and supporting the president’s goal of eliminating the Second Bank of the United States. After being appointed interim Secretary of the Treasury, Taney helped Jackson remove federal deposits from the national bank and deposit them with state banks. Taney’s nomination to become the Treasury Secretary failed, the first time the Senate rejected a president’s cabinet nominee.
In early 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Gabriel Duvall. Jackson’s opponents in the Senate blocked the confirmation vote, however. In the next legislative session, Jackson and Taney fared better, and on March 28, 1836, Taney was confirmed; the Senate vote was 29 – 15.
During his twenty-eight years as Chief Justice, Taney presided over numerous important cases, such as Luther v. Borden, the License Cases, and the Prize Cases. He is most remembered, however, for his opinion for the Court in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. In an opinion widely regarded as among the most ignominious in the Court’s history, Taney wrote that decedents of African-born slaves, whether free or enslaved, were not United States citizens. Taney also concluded that Congress lacked the authority to regulate slavery in the territories, that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and that slaves were property protected under the Fifth Amendment. Dred Scott wouldbe overruled after the Civil Ear by the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and stated that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States . . .” were citizens of the United States.
During the Civil War, Taney tried to constrain President Lincoln’s authority to prosecute the war, although to little effect. Taney served on the Court until his death on October 12, 1864. President Lincoln filled Taney’s vacant seat with Salmon P. Chase, a staunch anti-slavery Republican.
This Post was Written by ISCOTUS Fellow Alec Bodendorfer, Chicago-Kent Class of 2022, and edited by ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent Faculty Member Christopher W. Schmidt.