Critical Race Theory and the Complicated Arc of American History

A prominent 19th century historical figure has publicly declared slavery “a stain on our national character.” Abraham Lincoln? Frédéric Douglass? John Brown? No. Roger Brooke Taney who, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, authored the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision denying African Americans citizenship rights in this country. American history is a mass of complexities and contradictions. Chief Justice Taney’s legal career strongly supports this concept.

Recent editorials and press articles have addressed the political storm surrounding the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which argues that various institutions in this country over the course of its existence have had a significant negative impact on the lives of people from across the country. color. This controversy has reached a level of impact on national and local elections across the country. As part of this re-examination of our history, the bust of Justice Taney was recently removed from the Capitol in Washington where the Supreme Court heard cases in the 19th century. While Judge Taney more than deserves the universal condemnation he endured for writing the Dred Scott decision, a review of his prejudicial career reveals a man whose professional conduct was utterly inconsistent with Dred Scott’s position that Afro- Americans do not enjoy any legal rights in this country. .

Taney’s legal career in relation to African Americans and slavery can be divided into two distinct parts: his days as a young lawyer and those as a national figure.

Taney, who was born in Calvert County, Maryland, in 1777, first practiced law in Frederick, Maryland. Early in his career, Taney adopted pro-African-American rights despite being a slave owner. For example, he joined an anti-kidnapping society that sought to prevent free African Americans from being illegally seized and sold as slaves. In his practice, Taney represented an African American who sought his freedom after being kidnapped in Pennsylvania and sold as a slave in Maryland. Taney also vigorously appealed the conviction and death penalty of a free African American for raping a young white woman, which could not have been a popular cause to be embraced in a slave state in the early 1900s. XIXth century.

In fact, the trial attorney, the legendary lawyer Luther Martin, was assaulted by the trial judge as he boarded a stagecoach back to Baltimore from Frederick after the verdict. The appeals court decision reflects a tremendous amount of legal work done by Taney and Martin in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn the conviction. In addition, Taney freed his slaves except for two elderly people who could not take care of themselves. Finally, as a state senator, he consistently voted for anti-slavery laws, which was a distinctly minority position in the Maryland legislature at the time.

The most prominent case in Taney’s career as a young lawyer on the issue of slavery was the defense of Reverend Jacob Gruber, a White Methodist pastor from Pennsylvania who has been accused of instigating a rebellion in slaves in a speech he gave to a Métis crowd of several thousand at a camp meeting in Washington County, Maryland, in August 1818. Gruber’s speech, who called slavery “National sin” enraged local slave holders who demanded his arrest and prosecution. Not content to simply argue the legal insufficiency of the case against his client, Taney vigorously challenged the institution of slavery itself in court, calling it contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of ‘independence, “a stain on our national character” and identifying the slave traders. as “reptiles”. Taney’s plea convinced the jury to acquit his client. After the trial, Taney cooperated in the publication of an anti-slavery book regarding the case by another Methodist minister who was fiercely abolitionist.

Sadly, Taney’s views on the evils of slavery as a young lawyer in Frederick vanished after he moved to Baltimore in 1823 to pursue his legal career. Taney became a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson’s presidential aspirations, and with his election in 1828, Taney was appointed to several cabinet-level positions and eventually chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1836.

Taney’s decisions as a lawyer contrasted starkly with his advocacy and personal actions as a young lawyer. In a series of rulings as Chief Justice, Taney has consistently sided with the property rights of slave owners versus slaves, culminating in the Dred Scott decision. In these rulings, Taney failed to demonstrate any of the enlightened positions he took as a young lawyer in Frederick and instead sought to extend legal protections for slave holders. Ironically, when Taney faced a storm of criticism for the Dred Scott ruling from northern politicians, his strong anti-slavery statements at the trial in favor of Reverend Gruber were used with derision against him in various newspapers.

Legal scholars agree that the Dred Scott decision represents the nadir of decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States. As the author, Taney will endure the ignominy of this exploitation forever. However, the perception of Taney’s historical record is incomplete as his early professional efforts to help African Americans, which stands in stark contrast to Dred Scott’s decision, have long been forgotten.

The removal of statues does not erase our complicated national history. American history should be studied in depth, assessed in detail, and taught from all angles, including CRT. Intellectual integrity demands that this process be conducted. The merit of any interpretation, including CRT, will over time be subject to the judgment of academics, educators, and members of the general public. The justified and late removal of Roger Taney’s bust from the Capitol is no substitute for this laudable effort.

Eugene J. Riccio is a criminal defense attorney with offices in Fairfield and Greenwich.

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