Taney takedown shows Baltimore under mob rule

Once this city had a newspaperman, H. L. Mencken, who deemed it his duty to quench public passions, not to feed them, and who fought the Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition Amendment, lynching and the Red Scare. Today, it has editors who in at least six disgraceful editorials and without any fair discussion of background and history, demanded removal of the Roger B. Taney monument in defiance of the applicable historical preservation procedures, a scheduled CHAP hearing having been canceled (“Baltimore’s Confederate monuments must go,” Aug. 14). Mayor Catherine Pugh has yielded to the new forms of political dialogue, social media and mob mentality.

The Dred Scott opinion with its inflammatory summary of black rights in 1787 when the Constitution still permitted the importation of slaves was founded on Justice Taney’s misguided belief, shared by too many later justices, that a decisive opinion on contested social issues would keep the peace. He had manumitted his own slaves and after Dred Scott, declared that they “had shown by their conduct that they were worthy of freedom and knew how to use it.” The Sun has told its readers something about the Taney opinion but nothing about Justice Taney’s opinion in Ex Parte Merryman in 1861 holding that only Congress could suspend the writ of habeas corpus and that arbitrary arrests on direction of the president were forbidden by the Constitution. Baltimore’s then-mayor, George William Brown, in later opposing a retirement age for judges in 1867, declared “It was the sublimest sight of his life when he saw Judge Taney when over the age of 80 years he made the decision in the Merryman case sustaining the writ of habeas corpus in the midst of armed men and then sending to the President and telling him to perform his oath.” An article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Supreme Court Historical Society shows that Mr. Taney was indeed in serious danger of arrest when he delivered his opinion.

Several of those in attendance when the Taney monument was dedicated in 1887, including Brown and Severn Teackle Wallis, had opposed secession, fostered manumissions and upheld the rights of free blacks both before and after the Civil War and were arbitrarily imprisoned during the Civil War because of their efforts to forestall it. Justice Taney’s Merryman opinion was echoed by the Supreme Court after the war in an opinion written by Justice David Davis, Abraham Lincoln’s former campaign manager and law partner. Most later writers have agreed with it (though not John Yoo, an apologist for the second Bush administration’s arbitrary detentions). It was commemorated in ceremonies and publications involving several of Baltimore’s federal judges in 1961 upon its centenary, and again in 2011, upon its tercentenary.

The monument, a fine sculpture, should be preserved at the Maryland Historical Society. Upon its plinth, which still stands, should be erected a plaque bearing Justice Taney’s words in the Merryman opinion: “If the authority which the Constitution has confided to the judiciary department and judicial officers may upon any pretext or under any circumstances be usurped by the military power at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found.”

George Liebmann, Baltimore

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