Mayor Catherine Pugh is getting heaped with praise for her swift action in removing Confederate statues from Baltimore in the middle of the night, including one of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision, which, in effect, rendered blacks as sub-human in the eyes of American law. Gov. Larry Hogan, on the other hand, is getting loads of grief for doing the exact same thing to an identical Taney statue on the State House grounds, with commenters littering his Facebook page with criticism and usually predictable allies using terms like “Maoist” to describe his actions.
Obviously, politics explains a lot of the disparate reactions. Mayor Pugh is a Democrat representing a black-majority city in which Republican voters are a non-factor. Her problem politically was with the progressives who helped put her in office, and they’re delighted. Mr. Hogan is a Republican, and many in his base see the post-Charlottesville reckoning for Confederate statues as (in Mr. Hogan’s previous words on the issue) “political correctness run amok.”
Is there a substantive difference between what the mayor did and what the governor did? Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller essentially tries to make that case in a letter he sent last week objecting to the process by which the State House statue removal was authorized. It is not remotely convincing. We’ll grant him that we would have preferred that the State House Trust hold a public meeting and vote rather than decide the issue via email. Ms. Pugh’s action, by contrast, followed mainly from the long ignored recommendations of a task force and a vote in the Baltimore City Council. But Mr. Miller’s attempt to dispense with the legacy of Dred Scott in a sentence (“We all know that the inflammatory and derogatory language and holding of the Dred Scott decision caused great and lasting wounds in our country and incited rather than avoided a Civil War”) and pivot to a lengthy defense of Taney’s other accomplishments misses the point altogether.
It’s not just that Mr. Miller echoed the Trumpian tactic of suggesting that if we're getting judging Taney on the question of slavery, we should hold the slaveholding George Washington in equally low (or perhaps even lower) regard, though that bit of his letter is particularly outrageous. It’s that the Senate president fails to appreciate that the “complex history” of Taney that he outlines was in no way conveyed by the statue. As an accomplished amateur Maryland historian who has been involved in debates about the Taney statue for decades, Mr. Miller may look at it and weigh a balance between Taney’s words in Dred Scott — which was predicated less on what the justice personally may have believed about blacks than on the notion that the framers of the Constitution could not have conceived of them as citizens — and some of his laudable opinions on matters of civil liberties (for whites, that is). Senator Miller certainly would look upon the statue and see it in the context of the Thurgood Marshall statue on the other side of the State House, which was intended to reflect Maryland’s progression from Dred Scott to Brown vs. Board of Education. But on its own terms, the Taney statue represented nothing but veneration for a man whose most consequential contribution to American history was to conclude that blacks should be considered no more than “merchandise” under the Constitution.
Moreover,the Taney statue and Confederate statues across the nation cannot be viewed in the same way after the Charlottesville violence. The statues may be the product of a “complex history,” but in the present, they are totems for Klansmen and neo-Nazis. Two years ago, when the mass shooting at a Charleston church by white supremacist Dylann Roof sparked the re-evaluation of Confederate monuments and symbols nationwide, Mr. Hogan resisted the idea of removing the Taney statue. But when the existence of the monuments themselves sparked violent protests and the murder of Heather Heyer, a woman protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, he, quite reasonably, changed his mind.
We apologize to Mr. Hogan if a defense of his actions on the editorial page of The Sun deepens his problems with his base, but the fact of the matter is he's right on this one. The existence of Taney’s statue on the State House grounds was the product of a moment in history when he was venerated. Its removal is the product of a moment in history when Maryland’s leaders across the political spectrum concluded that Taney’s chief legacy was to deepen a stain on the nation that endures to this day. The Dred Scott decision itself is predicated on the notion that we must be entrapped into perpetuating the mistakes of the past. We should not repeat Taney’s error.
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