The Supreme Court and Slavery

Roger Taney Becomes Chief Justice

President Andrew Jackson, a military hero from the War of 1812, ushered in the first era of American populism in March 1829.  He promised an administration that would serve the common people. One of his first acts was to call for a congressional investigation of the Second Bank of the United States, which he contended favored the interests of urban, manufacturing elites over exploration and expansion of the western frontier by the common man. Congress investigated the bank, but it did not agree with the President.  Jackson remained convinced that the bank should be shut down.  In 1831, he tapped then Maryland attorney general Roger Taney to be his Attorney General.  Taney’s assignment was to help dismantle the Second Bank of the United States.  

Taney descended from a prominent tobacco-farming family in Maryland, and he had once been a leader in the Maryland Federalist Party.  However, he embraced Jacksonian democracy when the Federalist Party fell into disarray.  Jackson moved Taney from Attorney General to Secretary of Treasury in 1833.  Taney served in that role only in an interim capacity, because the Senate refused to confirm him after he followed Jackson’s order to withdraw all federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States. 

In January 1835, Jackson attempted to reward Taney by nominating him to replace Gabriel Duvall on the United States Supreme Court.  The Senate for a second time refused to confirm Taney, primarily because of his actions against the bank.  Taney returned to the private practice of law in Baltimore.

The next year, 1836, Jackson again nominated Taney to the Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice.  Jackson also nominated Virginian Philip Barbour to fill the still empty seat vacated by Justice Duvall.  The political makeup of the Senate had swung in Jackson’s favor by then, and both Taney and Barbour were confirmed.  Like his predecessor, Taney brought both considerable political experience and a congenial personality to the post.   

Taney joined a court that already was in the process of retreat from the high-water mark of Marshall Court decisions that had used the Contracts Clause in Article I, section10, to protect the rights of vested economic elites against regulation by state legislatures.  Jacksonian populists contended that legislatures (state and federal) had the power to regulate the economy in the public interest.  Economic elites should not be allowed to stifle change by taking refuge in vested rights and contract rights.  Even John Marshall had seemed to bow to the forces of Jacksonian democracy, writing in l830 that state-chartered banks are not exempt from state taxation unless their charters explicitly free them from such obligations.  Providence Bank v. Billings (1830).    

In his very first term as Chief Justice Taney had the opportunity to take the court further in the direction of upholding state regulatory powers against claims of vested property rights.  The case in question had roots deep in American history as well as ties to the country’s modernizing economy.