Roger Taney Does a Good Deed

Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1861, is probably best remembered for writing the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott decision and its atrocious statement that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Yet on March 14, 1861, he delivered the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Kentucky v. Dennison considerably friendlier to African Americans, by implication if not by design. The case involved extradition law and whether federal courts could compel state governors to honor warrants of extradition from other states.

The case had begun in October 1859 when Willis Lago, a free man of color, helped a slave named Charlotte to escape from her Kentucky master. Lago was indicted by a grand jury in Woodford County, Kentucky, for assisting in the escape which was a crime under Kentucky law. By the time Kentucky authorities tried to bring Lago into custody, he was in Ohio. So Kentucky sought to extradite Willis Lago by applying to William Dennison, the Governor of Ohio. Dennison, an avowed opponent of the fugitive slave law (which wasn’t applicable because Lago was free), refused to honor the extradition request. Kentucky took Dennison to federal court to compel him to deliver up Willis Lago for prosecution.

Roger B. Taney, writing for a unanimous court, indicated that Governor Dennison had a duty to honor a request for extradition, but federal authority could not compel Dennison, or any other state governor, to do so. Chief Justice Taney wrote, “It is true that Congress may authorize a particular State officer to perform a particular duty, but if he declines to do so, it does not follow that he may be coerced or punished for his refusal. . . . if the Governor of Ohio refuses to discharge this duty, there is no power delegated to the General Government, either through the Judicial Department or any other department, to use any coercive means to compel him.

While Kentucky v. Dennison was a victory for states’ rights, in this case it prevented Kentucky from prosecuting a free man of color for helping a slave to escape to freedom and by implication made the federal Fugitive Slave Act harder to enforce. Certainly this was not Roger Taney’s intention, who no doubt saw the case in light of the larger issue of federalism. Nonetheless, it was an important blow against slavery on the eve of the Civil War.

Interestingly, Kentucky v. Dennison remained the controlling U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether the federal government could compel governors to honor extradition requests until 1987, when the court overturned it in the case of Puerto Rico v. Branstad, granting federal courts the authority to compel extradition.

For the full text of Roger B. Taney’s opinion in Dennison v. Kentucky visit the website of Legal Information Institute at the Cornell University Law School at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0065_0066_ZO.html

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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4 Responses to Roger Taney Does a Good Deed

  1. fiona taney says:

    Roger B Taney is my great, great, great uncle, in the dread Scott case the vote was 2 to 7 in favor of charging the man who helped the slave escape, roger Taney vote didn’t even matter he was a good man who deserves his honor in history

    • Hi Fiona. Dred Scott deals with the case of a slave suing for his freedom, not with an escaped slave. And Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion pf the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, denying that Scott even had grounds to sue because slaves were not citizens, and because black men “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Your kinsman had a brilliant legal mind, and his attitudes about race were common in the antebellum United States, but his words in the Dred Scott case were controversial even in his lifetime and do not help his historical reputation. There was no need in rejecting Scott’s appeal to use such racially inflammatory rhetoric, which aggravated rather than soothed sectional tensions in the years before the Civil War.

      Don Shaffer

      • Damon G. Taney says:

        Hi Don:

        What do you think would have happened to the United States had the decision gone the other way? Do you think President Buchanan; a Quaker; would have gone to war to keep the southern states from leaving the union? How long do you think slavery would have lasted in the Confederacy at that point? Would the U,S, as we know it today exist? Do you even know the other things that Roger B. did for the country when he was a member of ” the kitchen cabinet?”

  2. fiona taney says:

    well, he made a decision that was the most popular at the time, i am sure that if he had the same decision to make again today he would pick to let the slave be free, slaves were a way of life back then but everyone has there different opinions, thank you for all the information
    Fiona Taney

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