Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Other Voices: Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott, Reptile Slave Traders and The Devil

Taney Will Always Be Controversial, Janice Hayes-Williams, The Maryland Gazette , September 5, 2007

"We Pennsylvanians think it strange, and it seems curious to read the prints or newspapers, from some states and find - For sale a plantation, a house and lot, horses, cows, sheep and hogs; also a number of Negroes - men and women and children - some very valuable ones… In this inhuman traffic and cruel trade the most tender ties are torn asunder, the nearest connections broken."
- The Rev. Jacob Gruber, Camp Meeting, Washington County, Md., 1819

These were the words spoken by Free Black Methodist Episcopal preacher, the Rev. Gruber, during a Methodist meeting in Washington County where 3,000 Methodists attended as well as 400 slaves. The Rev. Gruper, a Pennsylvania preacher, preached his way straight to an indictment by the grand jury of Washington County. On what grounds might you ask: On the grounds of "intending to unlawfully and maliciously incite the slaves at the camp-meeting to insurrection and rebellion in the State of Maryland."

This was truly a sign of the times. It is 1819, less than 20 years from the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a rise in number of free blacks (especially in Maryland), with the growth of institutionalized slavery tripling in a 50-year period between 1750 and 1800 and the fact of the matter is that in colonies like Maryland and Virginia, slaves outnumbered their masters.

Seeking a fair trial, the Rev. Grouper requested that his proceedings be moved to the Frederick County courts of Maryland. His request was granted and the trial began in March 1819. The principal counsel chosen for his defense was Roger Brooke Taney, attorney at law.

Taney, defended the Rev. Gruber based on what he considered the court's lack of evidence. Taney went on to explain to the three sitting judges all of whom were slaveholders that the Rev. Gruber was well within his right to speak of the ills of slavery as most Methodist preachers did at that time. Taney went on to say that the rights of conscience and freedom of speech are fully protected, and subjects of national policy may at all times be freely and full discussed in the pulpit or elsewhere without limitation or restraint.

In his closing arguments for the defense, Taney left the judges with this, first on slaveholders: "those reptiles who live by trading in human flesh and enrich themselves by tearing the husband from the wife and the infant from the mother's bosom."

The Rev. Gruber was found not guilty. Many scholars say this was Taney's most glorious moment in the courtroom. On the other hand, while serving on the Supreme Court, scholars say that Chief Justice Taney's most abominable moment was when he rendered the decision in the Dred-Scott decision in 1857, 150 years ago. It has been said that the Dred Scott decision in which Scott a slave was moved from a slave state to a free state, with his master, and later petitioned for his freedom is what propelled our states into the Civil War. Taney delivered the opinion of the majority (7-2) in this case which basically stated that people of African descent whether or not they were slaves, could never be citizens of the United States, therefore no rights to the court, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories (The Missouri Compromise).

In other words, property cannot cease to exist as a result of changing jurisdictions. It enraged many, President Lincoln, Frederick Douglas and numerous abolitionists. What many do not understand about this case is that this decision was not based on the morality of slavery but with the legalities. For this ruling images of Chief Justice Taney are being removed from the public eye. These setbacks propelled African Americans into the fight for civil rights.

Taney was not "pro-slavery," he manumitted his slaves, joined his brother-in-law Francis Scott Key as a member of the American colonization society colonizing Liberia. Take away Taney's history, then take away the history of the Missouri Compromise, the Louisiana Purchase, the importance of the "writ of habeas corpus," the history of Liberia, the vindication of the Rev. Gruper, the Thurgood Marshall Memorial at the State House, and the stories of this controversial border state of Maryland. Taney is the very fabric that makes Maryland, Maryland.

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