This Day in Supreme Court History: October 12, 1864

On this day in 1864, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died.

Taney’s career on the Supreme Court was marked by controversy from the start. Nominated to the Court by President Andrew Jackson in 1835, the Senate initially refused to confirm Taney as an Associate Justice because of his controversial record as Jackson’s Attorney General, particularly his role in dismantling the Second Bank of the United States. After Chief Justice John Marshall died later that year, Jackson nominated Taney to the Court again, and in 1836 he secured Senate approval. Although he wrote many significant opinions during his almost three decades on the Court, the opinion for which he will forever be remembered is Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), in which he held that African Americans, whether free or slave, were not citizens of the United States and that Congress lacked authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Reflecting on the Chief Justice’s death, the editors of the New York Times noted:

The demise of Chief-Justice Taney comes almost like some strange visitation. For one full generation he has occupied the highest judicial position in the United States, and it almost seems identified with his name. The disturbance of old associations is all the greater, because it happens at the very height of the civil conflict which is linked indissolubly with the most important act of his judicial life.

Judge Taney was a man of pure moral character, and of great legal learning and acumen. Had it not been for his unfortunate Dred Scott decision, all would admit that he had, through all those years, nobly sustained his high office. That decision itself, wrong as it was, did not spring from a corrupt or malignant heart. It came, we have the charity to believe, from a sincere desire to compose, rather than exacerbate, sectional discord. But yet it was none the less an act of supreme folly, and its shadow will ever rest on his memory.

On December 6, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln–who as a candidate for the U.S. Senate  in 1857 had denounced Taney’s Dred Scott opinion and who as President remained a strong critic of the Chief Justice–nominated former Ohio governor and current Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to become the sixth Chief Justice of the United States. The Senate confirmed Chase, a dedicated abolitionist, that same day.

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