Though the first holders of the job thought it more a burden than a position of honor or power, the office of chief justice of the United States has a pivotal role in the American constitutional system, thanks mainly to John Marshall (1755–1835). Born in Virginia in 1755, Marshall was a veteran of the Continental Army and one of the first students to hear the law lectures delivered at the College of William and Mary by George Wythe. Marshall distinguished himself as a rising young attorney and as one of the advocates of the proposed Constitution in the 1788 Virginia ratifying convention. In 1798, he was one of three American diplomats sent to France by President John Adams to negotiate differences between the new nation and the revolutionary republic. Embroiled in the XYZ Affair, Marshall brought the news of the scandal home to America, where he was lionized as a hero. When Adams fired Secretary of State Timothy Pickering in 1800, he named Marshall to the post, and in 1801, as one of the last acts of his presidency, Adams named Marshall to succeed Oliver Ellsworth as chief justice, after John Jay declined reappointment. Marshall, at 45, was the youngest man named to the post.
During his thirty-four years as chief justice (still a record in the Court’s history), John Marshall transformed the Court’s position within the constitutional system and fought a vigorous and skilled battle to uphold federal authority over interstate commerce and in relations between the federal government and the states. Marshall’s record of achievement began with Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which he vindicated the Court’s power of judicial review (the power to review the constitutionality of federal or state laws or other governmental actions) and laid the foundations of federal constitutional jurisprudence. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), Marshall held that a land grant was a contract that a state could not revoke without violating the Constitution’s clause protecting contracts; in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), Marshall reaffirmed Fletcher and extended it to protect state laws of incorporation—in this case, incorporating a college—from later state government attempts to revoke them. In McCullough v. Maryland (1819), Marshall led the Court in vindicating federal authority by striking down as unconstitutional a Maryland law seeking to tax the Bank of the United States, an agency of the federal government.
And, in a series of major cases interpreting the Constitution’s clause granting Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, Marshall and his colleagues vindicated federal regulatory power. Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), for example, struck down a New York law giving a steamship company an exclusive monopoly over traffic across the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Brown v. Maryland (1827) addressed the issue of when federal authority over interstate commerce ended and state authority began, focusing on the question of whether the goods at issue were still in their original package—if so, then federal authority did not end, but if not, then state authority took over when the original package was opened. In Marshall’s last major constitutional case, Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the chief justice rejected an argument by a Marylander that the city of Baltimore had violated the Fifth Amendment by a harbor-reconstruction program that destroyed the value of his wharf; Marshall held that the framers and ratifiers of the federal Constitution’s Bill of Rights had intended it only to limit the powers of the federal government, not the states.
Besides the great precedents, Marshall changed key elements of the way that the Court did business. Before Marshall, for example, each justice delivered his opinion on each case heard by the Court, in a practice known as seriatim opinions (from the Latin meaning “in a series”), and it required much labor and legal knowledge to work out how the justices had decided a given case. Marshall introduced the “opinion for the Court,” in which one member of the Court (in most cases Marshall himself) delivered a statement of the Court’s decision and the reasoning undergirding its decision. Any justice who disagreed could write and deliver a dissenting opinion, though—as Justice William Johnson reported to an enraged former president Thomas Jefferson, who had named him to the Court to counter Marshall’s influence—the would-be dissenter usually quailed in the face of the visible disappointment and hurt feelings of his colleagues.
After Marshall died, on July 6, 1835, speculation was rife as to who his successor would be. President Andrew Jackson had had reason to resent Marshall for his decisions in 1831 and 1832 of cases in which the Cherokee nation sought to prevent the state of Georgia from taking its ancestral lands; Jackson had refused to enforce Worcester v. Georgia, and the state evicted the Cherokee people, forcing them to beat a heartbreaking and agonizing retreat westward, known thereafter as “the trail of tears.”
On December 28, 1835, Jackson named his longtime ally, Roger Brooke Taney (pronounced "tawny") of Maryland as the nation’s fifth chief justice. Taney had served Jackson as attorney general and as secretary of the Treasury (as a recess appointment), winning a reputation as a loyal Jacksonian who would craft legal arguments to his chief’s political advantage. As Treasury secretary, Taney enforced Jackson’s decision to remove federal deposits from the Bank of the United States after two previous Treasury secretaries had refused to do so. An outraged Senate refused to confirm Taney’s appointment, and Taney resigned. Jackson later attempted to name Taney an associate justice but the Senate again refused. Only in the spring of 1836 did the Senate relent and confirm Jackson’s nomination of the Marylander to succeed John Marshall.
Admirers of Marshall, from his junior colleague on the Court Joseph Story to such notable attorneys and politicians as Daniel Webster, were aghast. Taney, in their view, was nothing but a conscienceless political operative who would follow the dictates of his chief, President Jackson, and gut the idea of the rule of law. Story viewed as a sign of impending trouble the Court’s 1837 decision of Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge. In that case, two companies building bridges over the Charles River in eastern Massachusetts came to legal blows because the Charles River Bridge Company claimed that it held an exclusive right, based on a grant from the state legislature, to operate a bridge over the river. Taney and the majority held that the grant should be read narrowly to permit both the Charles River Bridge Company and the company building the Warren Bridge to operate bridges; Taney also insisted that the rights and interests of the public were as relevant to the Court’s decision of the case as the terms of the original grant, and the public interest cut against the granting of such monopolies.
In his first decades on the Court, despite some fevered denunciations of Charles River Bridge, Taney surprised and gratified his opponents by following a careful, nuanced path in interpreting the Constitution. Taney preferred to stick more closely to the letter of the Constitution and to balance competing claims of federal and state authority over commerce.
In a series of commerce clause cases, Taney and his colleagues recognized that states as well as the federal government had vital interests in regulating interstate commerce, and worked to find mutually satisfactory formulas to preserve federal supremacy while making room for state regulation. Thus, for example, in Mayor of New York v. Miln (1837), the Taney Court upheld, over a bitter dissent by Justice Story, a New York statute requiring all ships’ captains to give local authorities a manifest listing all passengers being brought into the state, citing the state’s interests in ensuring that paupers or other undesirable persons not enter the state. In Cooley v. Board of Port Wardens (1851), the Taney Court held that Philadelphia could require ships either to retain a local pilot to steer the ship into port or to pay a fee. The justices agreed that Congress had not legislated in this area to exclude state authority. In particular, Taney was noted for his articulation and development of the doctrine of the state’s “police power”—the power to regulate in the interests of the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the state’s citizens.
Taney and his colleagues also were careful to conserve the authority of the Court. In a notable case emerging from Rhode Island, Luther v. Borden (1849), the Taney Court took pains not to get involved in a bitter constitutional dispute that had come perilously close to plunging the state into civil war. Instead, Taney and the other members of the Court defined a class of issues called “political questions” better left for resolution to the political branches of the government than to the judiciary. Thus, the Court refused to enforce the Constitution’s clause guaranteeing to each state a republican form of government, holding that that clause was best enforced by the president and Congress.
Taney and his colleagues did, however, depart from this nuanced and thoughtful approach to constitutional jurisprudence in cases involving state laws restricting the rights of slaveholders. In those cases, they were willing to deploy the full weight of the Supreme Court to vindicate national supremacy, which thus as a practical matter meant favoring the rights of slaveholders over the attempts of anti-slavery state governments to strike at slavery or hobble its enforcement within their borders. The common element in these cases was the crossing of state boundaries by slaves—whether as runaways or apprehended runaways, or as property brought across state lines by their masters into either new territories or existing states.
The most notorious case decided by Taney, and the one that destroyed his reputation, was Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). In this case, a slave, Dred Scott, sued John F. A. Sanford (the court reporter misspelled his name as Sandford), the executor of his owner’s estate, for his freedom on the ground that his owner had taken him into a free state and a free territory, making him legally free. The case rose slowly through the court system of Missouri and then reached the US Supreme Court. Six justices, led by Samuel Nelson of New York, saw a narrow technical way out of the case—holding, under Missouri law, that Scott as a slave could not sue or be sued in state or federal court. Chief Justice Taney, however, was bent on using the case as a vehicle to do something much broader.
On March 6, 1857, Taney issued his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which generally was regarded as the opinion of the Court, despite the presence of six concurring and two dissenting opinions. Taney’s sweeping opinion held that, under the original intent of the framers of the Constitution, those of African descent had no rights that members of the white race “were bound to respect”; that the right to own slaves was a property right like any other property right protected by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution; that the Constitution granted no power to the federal government to limit the spread of slavery; and that such earlier federal attempts to limit slavery’s spread into the territories as the 1820 Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional. Scott, Taney held, was a slave and must remain so.
Taney seemingly intended his opinion to be an authoritative judicial resolution of the slavery issue in national politics, and in particular a rebuke to abolitionists and those who would demand the use of federal power to restrict slavery’s spread. If so, his hopes were dashed, for his opinion for the Court backfired, inflaming slavery agitation throughout the nation, spurring abolitionists and anti-expansionists to redouble their efforts, and damaging his reputation and the Court’s authority in equal measure. Indeed, the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, made his national reputation in the years preceding his nomination by delivering eloquent and stinging attacks on the legitimacy of the Dred Scott decision and even, in a powerful 1860 lecture at New York’s Cooper Institute, refuting Taney’s original intent argument.
With Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, and his vigorous use of executive authority to counter Southern states’ attempts to leave the Union, Taney engaged in a futile judicial rear-guard action, using decisions he handed down in the US circuit court for the District of Columbia in repeated attempts to frustrate Lincoln’s measures. Ironically, Lincoln paid as little heed to Taney’s actions as Jackson had paid to John Marshall’s opinion for the Court in Worcester v. Georgia. Taney died in 1864, embittered and despairing of the Court’s authority.
Whereas John Marshall continues to be venerated as the great chief justice, Roger B. Taney’s historical reputation continues under the cloud cast by Dred Scott v. Sandford. Though scholars have sought to restore some measure of his reputation based on his contributions to constitutional jurisprudence in the fields of the commerce clause, the states’ police power, and the political-question doctrine, he always will be the man who rejected the idea that blacks had any rights that whites were bound to respect.
R. B. Bernstein is Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School. His publications include Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution (1987), Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? (1993), Thomas Jefferson (2003) and Bolling v. Bolling: Law and the Legal Profession in Pre-Revolutionary America (1997), co-edited with Barbara Wilcie Kern and Bernard Schwartz.
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