By David A. Plymyer
The hasty decision by Maryland’s State House Trust to remove the statue of Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis was an opportunity lost. The three members of the trust’s board who voted by email in favor of removing the statue missed the chance for something becoming exceedingly rare in politics at all levels of government: An informed and civil discourse that enlightens rather than polarizes, and that promotes the sense that a decision is based on something other than raw emotion or politics.
Taney’s personal life and career as a jurist presented the perfect opportunity for a discussion on the standards by which we judge historical figures. The consensus historical view of the Calvert County native was that he was a decent and distinguished man who, if he was guilty of anything, was guilty as the chief justice of the United States of an egregious failure to rise above the prevailing legal view on the rights of African-Americans under the United States Constitution when he authored the majority decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Behind much of the contemporary criticism of Taney by white Americans is a profound conceit: The notion that, if born 240 years ago in a slave-holding state, we somehow would have been nobler and more heroic than Taney when it came time to decide Dred Scott.