In 1931, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes dedicated a bust of Roger Brook Taney in his predecessor’s hometown of Frederick, Maryland. “It is unfortunate,” Hughes said, “that the estimate of Chief Justice Taney’s judicial labors should have been so largely influenced by the opinion which he delivered in the case of Dred Scott.” Hughes blamed “the temper of the times” for the ignominy of the decision, citing its “negligible influence on constitutional jurisprudence.” Rather, Hughes praised Taney’s decision in Ableman v. Booth as “the crown of the judicial career of Chief Justice Taney.”
Eighty-five years later, the Frederick Historic Preservation Commission voted 4-1 to remove that bust of Taney and a plaque discussing Dred Scott.
Commissioners on Thursday emphasized the limited scope of their purview before signing off on the removal.
“We’re not here to decide to laud or to vilify these men,” said Matt Bonin, an alternate to the commission.
Commissioner Dan Lawton agreed, referring to the aldermen’s prior decision in support of the removal.
“This property belongs to the city, which means it belongs to the people,” he said, “and the people have spoken through their elected representatives.”
The soon-to-be removed plaque, installed in 2009, concludes:
The unenlightened racial view found in the pivotal Dred Scott decision, the national debate that ensued, the bloodshed of the Civil War that followed, all make it important to comprehend the historical context of our past and to continue our progress towards racial equality.
Going forward, anyone who wishes to read this plaque will have to visit the Mount Olivet Cemetery, which will also host the bust of Maryland’s first Governor Thomas Johnson (a slaveholder). It is a figurative and literal burying of Taney’s impact on the law.