On March 6, 1857, Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States wrote, in the case of Scott v. Sandford, that negroes have “been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Most people have heard of this decision as the “Dred Scott” case. Dred Scott was a slave who sued to obtain his freedom, and the freedom of his wife and daughter.
Taney had devoted years of his life to public service. Before being appointed to the Supreme Court, he served as Attorney General in the Jackson administration. As the nation struggled with growing division over the Abolition movement, Taney aligned with those who sought to preserve the Union.
In the Dred Scott case, Taney sought to put an end to the national debate over slavery. He thought that a clear, definitive statement of the law governing the legal position of black people in the United States could stop the agitation for abolition and limits on expansion of slavery into the western territories which were clamoring to become states.
Taney worked with the best education and most sophisticated religious analysis available in his age. But like other conservative activist judges, he was willing to misstate the truth when it suited his predetermined goals. While Taney wrote that negroes were “altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations” the dissenting justices in the case pointed out that when the Constitution was ratified 10 of the 13 original colonies allowed negroes to vote with other citizens. (This does not mean that those colonies treated blacks and whites equally or prohibited discrimination.)
Although he strove to preserve the Union and wrote from his understanding of the scientific and religious “reality” of negro inferiority, we remember Taney for this one decision that science has proven so wrong. And that Christian ethics now deride as immoral.
No case gets to the Supreme Court without first being heard by multiple lower courts. Dred Scott first sued for his freedom in Missouri, in 1846, and in 1850 a jury decided that Scott and his family were legally free. But his owners appealed and his suit finally ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852, that Court wrote that abolition was a step “whose inevitable consequences must be the overthrow and destruction of our government. Under such circumstances it does not behoove the State of Missouri to show the least countenance to any measure which might gratify this spirit.”
How many times have you heard that? In the ’40s and ‘50s, we were told that integrating the Army and other services would destroy morale, effectiveness, and the national defense. Tell it to Colin Powell. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, we were told that integrating our schools would destroy education. Tell it to Henry Louis Gates and Barack Obama. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we were told that giving women equality would undermine our moral character. Tell it to Cindy Sheehan and Maxine Waters and Sonia Sotomayor.
Now, in 2009, another respected, knowledgeable jurist, Ronald George, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, has joined the 1852 Missouri Supreme Court and Roger B. Taney in the club of men who chose economic expedience over history, over scientific truth, over morality. This year, modeling his conduct on Taney, Ronald George wrote that homosexual citizens do not have the same rights under the California Constitution that heterosexual citizens have. He joined those who claim our civilization will collapse if we permit gay marriage.
Derision focuses its glare on Taney. 152 years after declaring his belief that people of African heritage could never have the same rights as people of European heritage the entire civilized world knows he was wrong. And even those who still praise the sort of discrimination he supported don’t respect him.
Antonin Scalia mocked Taney for being too soft. In one of his characteristic dissents, he commented on a painting of Taney hanging at Harvard Law School. Scalia derided Taney for looking sad as if he were contemplating history after the Dred Scott decision. Scalia sneered at Taney’s “expression of profound sadness and disillusionment.” Scalia, the modern, for-profit, ”christian” conservative finds it ridiculous that Taney could ever rethink his paean to racism.
The painting was made in 1859, only two years after the Dred Scott decision. Already, Taney was rethinking his stance. Already, he was aware of the place he had created for himself in history. And now, 150 years later, Scalia condemns Taney for having found a heart. For mourning his own errors. For thinking. For the modern conservative jurist there is no looking back – only the forward march to further acquisition of power and money.
We may wonder which type of conservative is Ronald George. Like Scalia, he knows a lot more science than Taney ever could have. He knows that science has proven that racial distinctions are ephemeral and that sexual orientation is genetically determined. He knows that the First Amendment protects people of many religious faiths and should not permit any religious bigotry to control the lives of others. And he knows that the for-profit churches and lobbyists who preach about “traditional marriage” are consciously ignoring the Biblical patriarchs and their many wives. Yet he sided with the “civilization will fall” crowd.
When it came time to choose, he sided with the monied interests against human rights. Taney at least had scientific ignorance to justify his ruling. George didn’t. And Taney had more. He had a religious conviction that Christianity meant something more than “do unto others before they do unto you.”
Taney truly believed that “negroes” were “beings of an inferior order.” But he also knew that they were sentient and had real, tangible needs. He had been a slave owner. But decades before the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation, Taney freed his own slaves. And he provided support for his emancipated slaves who were too old to work. His belief that they were inferior included the belief that a man who exploited inferiors had a responsibility to the very people he exploited.
Find a modern conservative or for-profit Christian who believes that today, if you can.
We may wonder whether Ronald George has any feelings of responsibility for those whose civil rights he discarded when he wrote that Equal Protection and California Constitutional privacy rights do not extend to same sex couples. As Taney pretended that negroes had never had rights, Ronald George’s decision pretends that same sex couples will be granted equal rights, except the right to the word “marriage.”
Will Ronald George, in a couple of years, sit with an “expression of profound sadness and disillusionment” at what he wrote, as Roger Taney did? Or will he, like Scalia, harden himself against the suffering he inflicted and move on to new conservative triumphs?
Civilization didn’t collapse when traditional Jews had multiple wives in Biblical times or when Moslems had four wives as permitted by the Quran, or when Utah was founded by men with plural wives. Civilization didn’t collapse with the end of legally enforced segregation. And it hasn’t collapsed in the states which allow same-sex marriage. Will Ronald George’s hubris collapse when he recognizes that he has joined Taney as one of history’s legal japes?