Roger Brooke Taney


The School has two portraits of Roger Taney, fifth Chief Justice of the United States. Because of the subject, they are controversial.

Taney was born of a wealthy slave-owning family of tobacco farmers. A private, scholarly man, Taney graduated first in his class from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1795 at the age of eighteen. He received his early legal training in the office of Judge Jeremiah Chase of Annapolis Maryland. 

On 7 January, 1806, he married Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, only daughter of John Ross Key, and sister of Francis Scott Key, a law student with Taney at Annapolis, who afterwards wrote the Star-Spangled Banner

Upon his father's death, Taney freed his slaves. As a Maryland litigator in the 1820s, Taney had declared, "Slavery is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away."

The portrait of the younger Taney - which hangs outside the library's computer lab - was painted by the noted artist Henry Inman during Taney's tenure as Attorney General. As Andrew Jackson's attorney general, Taney helped close down the Second Bank of the United States, bringing him in direct conflict  with powerful leaders of the Senate, including Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Despite their opposition, in 1837 Jackson rewarded Taney by naming him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Yale's daguerreotype of a portrait by Matthew Brady made around 1848 shows him at the height of his powers and one of the most respected figures in Washington. Taney is remembered and respected for such opinions as Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, Abelman v. Booth, and Ex Parte Merryman.

That began to change in 1857, when the Supreme Court faced the case of Dred Scott, a slave who claimed his freedom as a result of being taken by his master to a free state. As the author of the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, Taney struck down the Missouri Compromise and ruled that the Constitution did not recognize the citizenship of an African American who had been born a slave. This decision sparked bitter opposition from northern politicians and a heated defense from the South and was one of the most important events leading up to the Civil War. This single opinion cast a shadow over Taney's distinguished legal career and his personal reputation for integrity.

Harvard's older portrait was painted by Emanuel Leutze, whose most famous work might be Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze's portrait - which hangs in the Caspersen Room - catches Taney at the end of his career, two years after Dred Scott and five years before his death.

In his dissent in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), the abortion case that reaffirmed Roe in 1992, Justice Scalia recalled the portrait that hangs in the Caspersen Room:

There comes vividly to mind a portrait by Emanuel Leutze that hangs in the Harvard Law School: Roger Brooke Taney, painted in 1859, the 82d year of his life, the 24th of his Chief Justiceship, the second after his opinion in Dred Scott. He is all in black, sitting in a shadowed red armchair, left hand resting upon a pad of paper in his lap, right hand hanging limply, almost lifelessly, beside the inner arm of the chair. He sits facing the viewer, and staring straight out. There seems to be on his face, and in his deep set eyes, an expression of profound sadness and disillusionment. Perhaps he always looked that way, even when dwelling upon the happiest of thoughts. But those of us who know how the lustre of his great Chief Justiceship came to be eclipsed by Dred Scott cannot help believing that he had that case--its already apparent consequences for the Court, and its soon to be played out consequences for the Nation--burning on his mind. I expect that two years earlier he, too, had thought himself "call[ing] the contending sides of national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution."

The Law School has many portraits that depict individuals who do not have the most sterling reputations, e.g., Lord Jeffries. Because the school owns and displays a portrait of a given individual is not an endorsement. Rather they are depictions of historical figures who have had some impact on our legal heritage -- for good or ill. Taney certainly had an impact on the American legal, social and cultural landscape. The comparison of Harvard's two portraits is certainly visually interesting.