The Statue of Chief Justice Taney Never Belonged in the CapitolRoundup
tags: slavery, statues, public history, Dred Scott, Roger Taney, capitol
Corey M. Brooks is associate professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania and author of Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics and Sculpting Memories of the Slavery Conflict: Commemorating Roger Taney in Washington, D.C., Annapolis, and Baltimore, 1864–1887.
“They [African Americans] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
With these infamous words, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s 1857 Dred Scott decision denied Black citizenship, as well as congressional authority over slavery in U.S. territories. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted to remove the Capitol’s marble bust of Taney, (along with other noted defenders of slavery, including those who joined the Confederate rebellion against the United States government).
Such a move is long overdue, and the Senate will hopefully concur in coming days. In fact, erecting the statue of Taney was so controversial that the Senate initially failed to appropriate money for the bust, thanks to many of the same arguments about slavery, racism and historical memory that we are rehashing 156 years later.
In early 1865, a bill to commission a marble bust of the recently deceased Taney for the Supreme Court chambers (then in the Capitol basement, near where the bust sits today) like those of his four predecessors passed the House almost without notice.
But when the Senate considered it — just a few weeks after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery went out to the states for ratification — irate and impassioned abolitionist senators defeated the appropriation. Commissioning this bust, they insisted, was wholly incongruous with the racial reckoning then taking place as the nation fought for abolition and looked toward a Reconstruction process that might guarantee equal rights.
In rebuking the proposed thousand-dollar bust, four abolitionist senators argued that a nation imagining, or reimagining, itself as being dedicated to liberty and equality owed neither “eulogies … nor statues” to “the memory of [slavery’s] apologists or champions.” “If a man,” famed Massachusetts radical Charles Sumner asserted, “has done evil during his life he must not be complimented in marble.” Instead Sumner demanded “the name of Taney … be hooted down the page of history.”