On this Presidents Day weekend, it might be interesting to reflect on the clash of ideas between Abraham Lincoln and Maryland's Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who presided over the famous Dred Scott decision that affirmed the existence of slavery in the United States. Taney and Lincoln disagreed further over the legality of the South's succession and about whether the president had the right to suspend habeas corpus.
James F. Simon, a New York University law professor, offers a surprisingly taunt and gripping accounting of the conflict between the two men in his book, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers.
Taney and Lincoln saw eye to eye on certain matters; both, for example, disliked slavery. But beginning in 1857, when Lincoln criticized Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case, declaring him a slave rather than a citizen who could go to court, the pair began to spar. They diverged further once Lincoln became president when Taney insisted that secession was constitutional and preferable to bloodshed, and blamed the Civil War on Lincoln.
In 1861, Taney argued that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was illegal. This holding was, Simon argues, "a clarion call for the president to respect the civil liberties of American citizens." In a group of cases in 1862, Taney joined a minority opinion that Lincoln lacked the authority to order the seizure of Southern ships.
Had Taney had the chance, suggests Simon, he would have declared the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional; he and Lincoln agreed that the Constitution left slavery up to individual states, but Lincoln argued that the president's war powers trumped states' rights. Simon's focus on Lincoln and Taney makes for a dramatic, charged narrative - and the focus on presidential war powers makes this historical study extremely timely.
Simon also chronicles both men's lives, devoting the most detail to their personal and legal interactions with slavery. We learn that Taney freed his slaves and that Lincoln defended a slave owner in a fugitive slave case.
Taney studied law in Annapolis and was admitted to the bar in 1799, later serving in the Maryland legislature. Interestingly, while Taney considered slavery legal, he, like others, hoped that the institution would eventually just die out.
Wednesday, March 11
ESTHER IVEREM -- This film and cultural critic talks about her book, We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006, and the "New Wave" in black film that began with Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. / 6:30 p.m. / Poe Room, Pratt Central Library / 400 Cathedral Street / Baltimore Tuesday, March 11
LAURA LIPPMAN -- Have breakfast with the award-winnning mystery author, who will be signing her new Tess Monaghan mystery, Another Thing to Fall. / 8 a.m. / Spoons Restaurant / 24 E. Cross St. / Baltimore