WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has approved a bill to remove a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared African Americans couldn’t be citizens, from the U.S. Capitol. Other statues including those of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders would also be removed.
The House approved the bill 305-113, sending it to the Senate, where prospects are uncertain.
Dred and his wife, Harriet, were both slaves. In 1846 they sued in St. Louis for their freedom, and the case was heard in the Old Courthouse. Under the law of that time, the issue was about property – and slaves were considered property.
The Scotts’ legal challenge went to the top court, where Taney ruled against them and other slaves. The case helped spark the Civil War and eventual freedom.
Besides Taney’s statue, the bill would direct the Architect of the Capitol to identify and eventually remove from Statuary Hall at least 10 statues honoring Confederate officials, including Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate Army, and Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. Three statues honoring white supremacists — including former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina — would be immediately removed.
The House vote comes as cities nationwide reexamine the people they’re memorializing with statues.The 2-foot-high marble bust of Taney is outside a room in the Capitol where the Supreme Court met for half a century, from 1810 to 1860. It was in that room that Taney, the nation’s fifth chief justice, announced the Dred Scott decision, sometimes called the worst decision in the court’s history.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., co-sponsored the bill and noted with irony that Taney was born in the southern Maryland district Hoyer represents. Hoyer said it was appropriate that the bill would replace Taney’s bust with another Maryland native, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the high court’s first Black justice.
“Defenders and purveyors of sedition, slavery, segregation and white supremacy have no place in this temple of liberty,” Hoyer said at a Capitol news conference ahead of the House vote.
“What Dred Scott said was, Black lives did not matter,” Hoyer said. “So when we assert that yes they do matter, it is out conviction … that in America, the land of the free includes all of us.”There’s at least one potentially surprising voice for Taney to stay. Lynne M. Jackson, Scott’s great-great-granddaughter, says that if it were up to her, she’d leave Taney’s bust where it is. But she said she’d add something too: a bust of Dred Scott.
“I’m not really a fan of wiping things out,” Jackson said in a telephone interview this week from her home in Missouri.
Jackson founded the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and serves as its president. The foundation raised $250,000, commissioned and installed in 2012 the statue of Dred and Harriet Scott that stands outside the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.
Efforts are underway to raise $1 million for another Scott monument in St. Louis to honor the hundreds of slaves who filed lawsuits for their freedom. The goal is to unveil the Freedom Suits Memorial in July 2021 on the east lawn of the Civil Courts Building.
Jackson has seen other Taney sculptures removed in recent years, particularly in Maryland, where he was the state’s attorney general before becoming U.S. attorney general and then chief justice.
In the summer of 2017, shortly after white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Baltimore’s mayor removed statues of Lee, Taney and others. A statue of Taney was removed from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis about the same time. And a bust of Taney was removed that year from outside city hall in Frederick, Md.
But Taney’s name and likeness remain in plenty of other places. Missouri has a Taney County. Philadelphia has a Taney Street. And another Taney bust sits alongside all other former chief justices in the Supreme Court’s Great Hall, a soaring, marble-columned corridor that leads to the courtroom. A portrait of Taney hangs in one of the court’s conference rooms.
Jackson said she believed that what memorials honoring figures such as Taney needed was context. At the Capitol, the Taney statue sits in the “place where the Dred Scott case was decided,” but the fact he is ”there by himself is lopsided,” Jackson said in suggesting that a bust of Scott be added. She had proposed a similar fix for the Taney statue in Annapolis.
The Senate, which is currently dominated by Republicans, also has a bill to replace the Taney bust and other statues. Even if a bill passes both chambers, it would need the president’s signature, and President Donald Trump has opposed the removal of historic statues elsewhere. Trump has strongly condemned those who toppled statues during protests over racial injustice and police brutality after the death in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In Congress, Taney’s bust was controversial from the start. When Illinois Sen. Lyman Trumbull proposed its creation in 1865, shortly after Taney’s death, he got into a heated debate with Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, a fierce opponent of slavery.
“Let me tell that senator that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now,” Sumner said. “And an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.”
Funding for a Taney bust wasn’t approved until almost a decade later. Today, near the Taney bust, inside the old Supreme Court chamber, there are also busts of the nation’s first four chief justices. The first, John Marshall, is the only person to serve as chief justice longer than Taney and a revered figure in the law.
But Marshall too was a deeply flawed man, as were other justices, said Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College in Pennsylvania and the author of “Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court.” Marshall bought slaves most of his life, a fact his biographers largely ignored, and was hostile to the idea of Blacks’ gaining their freedom, Finkelman said. Before the Civil War, probably the majority of justices owned slaves, he said.
“It’s not pretty. It’s who they were,” Finkelman said.