Friday, June 18, 2010

Huebner on Taney and "the Slavery Issue"

Just out in the (gated) on-line edition of the Journal of American History 97 (June 2010), is Timothy S. Huebner’s Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond—and before—Dred Scott. It commences:
Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney is best remembered for his 1857 opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which he refused a Missouri slave's claim to freedom and denied the rights of citizenship to both slaves and free blacks. "They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order," the chief justice infamously intoned, "and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Amid the national debate over the extension of slavery, Taney took the extreme proslavery position in his opinion, guaranteeing the property rights of slave owners by holding that Congress had no power to prohibit the institution in new territories. Less well known, however, are Taney's words in defense of an abolitionist minister nearly forty years earlier in Frederick County, Maryland. While establishing his career as a lawyer and serving as a Federalist political leader, Taney had defended Rev. Jacob Gruber, who had been indicted for preaching a sermon that allegedly disturbed the peace and promoted rebellion. During that 1819 trial, Taney made impassioned statements against the peculiar institution that stand in stark contrast to those penned by the "angry southern gentleman" in the Dred Scott decision. In a speech to the jury, Taney described slavery as "a blot on our national character" and insisted that "every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away." Historians have occasionally noted the incongruence between Taney's statements in 1819 and his opinion in Dred Scott, but no scholar has investigated the relationship between Taney's early antislavery words and his later proslavery position. This essay attempts to make sense of Taney's pronouncements on slavery.
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