Every time a president gets a few years under his belt, he’s named The Worst President Ever. Happens every time. Remember when Barack Obama was the worst ever? And before him George W. Bush? And before him Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter . . . . It’s a tradition going back to the first president, when a secretary of state named Jefferson was writing letters about President Washington’s betrayal of the “spirit of ‘76.”
But doubtless when it comes to the worst chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, we’d bet that 99 percent of historians have their man: Roger Taney.
You can’t tell the story of the United States of America without Roger Taney. Because the story of the USA isn’t always a good one. It has dark chapters. And the worst might have come when the United States Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott decision. The ruling—issued just before the Civil War and pushed through the process by then-president James Buchanan—said that all people of African descent aren’t, and can’t be, citizens of the United States.
It would take four years of Civil War and more political work to amend the Constitution (more than once) before that decision could be overruled.
Overruled, but not forgotten. For schools and colleges still teach the Dred Scott decision every semester, and should. Along with other mistakes like slavery and Jim Crow.
Some of us don’t want to tear down statues of past leaders in this country because we think the whole story of America should be told. Even when we can point to one and say, “That man was wrong.”
The House of Representatives in Washington voted this week to remove a bust of Roger Taney outside a room at the Capitol where the Supreme Court used to meet before it got its own digs. Removal of this bust was part of a larger bill that would remove many other statues as well.
But one voice opposing removal of Mr. Taney’s likeness comes from a surprising corner: Lynne Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott himself. She said if it were up to her, she’d leave Taney’s bust right where it is, but add another: a bust of Dred Scott. (“I’m not really a fan of wiping things out,” she told the press.)
That’s exactly what should be done. Leave Roger Taney’s bust where it is, outside that room in the Capitol building. And next to it, put up a bust of Dred Scott. And maybe put up a carving, or a plaque, between them, saying something like:
“In this room, in 1857, a case came before the United States Supreme Court: Dred Scott v. Sandford. Mr. Scott, a slave, argued that he and his wife had lived in free states for several years before being returned to a slave state by their owner, therefore they should be granted freedom under the laws of those free states. They took their case to court in Missouri first, then appealed eventually to the United States Supreme Court.
“The high court decided, in one of the worst episodes in American jurisprudence, that not only would Mr. Scott remain a slave, but extended the breadth of the case to say that African Americans “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” Instead of putting the slavery issue to rest, as Mr. Justice Taney and then-President James Buchanan believed, this decision outraged many Americans and helped lead to the outbreak of the United States Civil War four years later. Later, the “Civil War Amendments” would overturn the ruling.”
This would explain a dark part of American history, instead of erasing it.
A body can’t tell the story of the United States without telling the story of the Civil War and slavery. A body can’t tell the story of the Civil War and slavery without Dred Scott. And a body can’t tell the story of Dred Scott without Roger Taney and the decision that will haunt his shade throughout history.
It would be better, many of us think, to confront our past rather than forget it. And—who knows?—perhaps learn from it and make the country a better place.
Add a bust of Dred Scott. Let’s not be afraid to tell the story. The whole story—the whole, awful, bloody story.
Walter Hussman Jr.