Roger B. Taney

Taney, Roger Brooke

Roger Brooke Taney (tô´nē), 1777–1864, American jurist, 5th chief justice of the United States (1836–64), b. Calvert co., Md., grad. Dickinson College, 1795.

Early Life

Taney was born of a wealthy slave-owning family of tobacco farmers. He was admitted to the bar in 1799 and as a Federalist served (1799–1800) one term in the Maryland house of delegates. He temporarily broke with the Federalist leadership over the party's opposition to the War of 1812, but he gained control of the Federalists in Maryland and in 1816 was elected to a five-year term in the state senate. Having built up a large practice, he moved (1823) from Frederick to Baltimore.

In 1824 he permanently abandoned the Federalists to support Andrew Jackson. President Jackson appointed (1831) Taney to the post of Attorney General to assist in the struggle with the Bank of the United States. Taney wrote much of Jackson's message vetoing (1832) the act that rechartered the bank, and, when Louis McLane and William J. Duane refused to withdraw federal funds from the bank, Taney was appointed (1833) Secretary of the Treasury and effected the withdrawal.

Chief Justice

The Senate, incensed by Taney's actions as Secretary of the Treasury, refused in 1835 to ratify his nomination as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, but the following year, somewhat changed in membership, the Senate ratified his appointment as chief justice. In the Charles River Bridge Case (1837) Taney declared that a state charter of a private business conferred only privileges expressly granted and that any ambiguity must be decided in favor of the state. His opinion outraged conservatives, who were opposed to any modification of the view that charters issued by states are inviolable, a view established by Taney's predecessor, John Marshall, in the Dartmouth College Case (1819).

Taney felt that the police power of a state entitled it to make reasonable regulatory laws even if they appeared to override provisions of the U.S. Constitution; thus, he held that, although Congress alone had the power to regulate interstate commerce, a state might exclude a corporation organized elsewhere. In sustaining fugitive slave laws, however, Taney denied to free states the power of refusing obedience to federal statutes requiring the surrender of escaped slaves.

Taney's support of the slavery laws was most clearly expressed in the Dred Scott Case (1857). Here he held that slaves (and even the free descendants of slaves) were not citizens and might not sue in the federal courts, and that Congress could not forbid slavery in the territories of the United States. Opposition to the second holding was furiously expressed by the Republicans, and when Lincoln became President he considered Taney an arch foe. In the Civil War, Taney in vain ruled against Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (see Merryman, ex parte). There was much antipathy to Taney at his death, but there has been a gradual increase in appreciation of his contributions to constitutional law.


See biographies by B. C. Steiner (1922, repr. 1970), C. B. Swisher (1935, repr. 1961), and W. Lewis (1965); R. K. Newmyer, The Supreme Court under Marshall and Taney (1969).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Roger B. Taney: Selected full-text books and articles

Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective By Don E. Fehrenbacher Oxford University Press, 1981
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Taney Court and Judicial Power"
Our Constitution: Tool or Testament? By Beryl Harold Levy A.A. Knopf, 1941
Librarian's tip: Chap. II "Taney: Due Continence"
A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution By Harold M. Hyman Alfred A. Knopf, 1973
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Taney and Treason"
The Limits of Judicial Power: The Supreme Court in American Politics By William Lasser University of North Carolina Press, 1988
Librarian's tip: Chap. II "The Dred Scott Case"
The Growth of American Constitutional Law By Benjamin F. Wright Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942
Librarian's tip: Chap. IV "Jacksonian Judges and the Judicial Power"
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era By James M. McPherson Oxford University Press, 1988
Librarian's tip: Disscussion of Taney begins on p. 172
The Lives of John Marshall By Gerhardt, Michael J William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 4, March 2002
The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions By Leon Friedman; Fred L. Israel Chelsea House, vol.1, 1997
Librarian's tip: "Roger B. Taney" begins on p. 394
FREE! Sketches of the Lives and Judicial Services of the Chief-Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States By George Van Santvoord Charles Scribner, 1854
Librarian's tip: "Roger B. Taney" begins on p. 459
Federal Justice: Chapters in the History of Justice and the Federal Executive By Homer Cummings; Carl McFarland The Macmillan Company, 1937
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI. "Taney and the Monster"
By These Words: Great Documents of American Liberty, Selected and Placed in Their Contemporary Settings By Paul M. Angle; Edward A. Wilson Rand McNally, 1954
Librarian's tip: "Taney Upholds a Fundamental Right" begins on p. 225
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Supreme Court in Crisis: A History of Conflict By Robert J. Steamer University of Massachusetts Press, 1971
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Taney Court:: Consolidation of Power"
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