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Presbyterians celebrating Roger Taney and Dred Scott: A Retrospect |
Gracing the forefront place in the first Issue of the 26th Volume of the Southern Presbyterian Review (SPR), 1875, appeared a seemingly out-of-place contribution: a book review of a memoir of the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Roger B. Taney (1777–1864). What this article says about the moral compass of the southern Presbyterian church at the time is not only instructive as history, but stands as a warning to check our own moral compass, as well as our courage to correct it.
While not entirely unheard-of, book reviews in the SPR were uncommon. The quarterly publication usually featured around eight to ten major articles on theological topics in each issue. No doubt space was precious and somewhat competitive in an age where publication of sermons in general meant status for clergymen. Those attaining the few coveted slots in a major journal were therefore the scholars’ scholars, clergymen’s clergy, and it is not surprising to see a few elites names repeated throughout the issues of the SPR: Thornwell, Smyth, Adger, Girardeau, Palmer, Dabney, and others. In such precious space, book reviews, unless one were truly answering a key theological or philosophical development, were relegated to a few paragraphs each, bunched together at the end of the issue.
It is especially peculiar, then, to see the SPR lead off a year with a celebratory review of a book that was not only not centered on any key theological interest, but one not even on theology or theological figures at all (at least not in their traditional sense). Not only that, but the subject matter himself had not even been a Presbyterian or Reformed; he was a quite antithetical Roman Catholic.
Yet in 1875, what merited the chief seats among the journal for the crème-de-la-crème of Presbyterian minds was a recently-released memoir of a Supreme Court Chief Justice who had been dead for over ten years.
The discovery of this truly astounded me, though I am not sure why, after repeated such instances of racial affronts, and seemingly utter hubris on the part of some southern clergy especially to uphold the righteousness of the Old South, slavery, and the continued degradation of blacks under the guise of being their greatest friends and benefactors.
The immortal Roger Taney and his immortal decision
Recall that it was Taney who had penned the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, delivering some of the most hateful, insidious, cold, harsh, shocking, ruthless, heartless, and lawless words ever to flow forth from an American governmental institution. Recall that it was Taney who attempted to entrench, through judicial fiat, the southern position on slavery, and forever to bereave blacks of any standing before the U.S. Constitution by which they could change such a status. Having worked to chip away at the issues since 1841, Taney seems to have lowered the hammer in Dred Scott in a sort of “final solution” to the “negro” question.
Recall that it was Taney’s Dred Scott decision that left us with such immortal conclusions about the “negro” population as this:
We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. . . .
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. . . .
And, accordingly, a negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such, in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of Independence and afterwards formed the Constitution of the United States. (Quoted in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 151–152.)
In the annals of history which followed, no matter what other exploits or heroics Taney may ever have achieved, he would still today be remembered for one thing: Dred Scott. Hardly anyone today will recall his name; but if they do, it will be as the author of that hateful manifesto of judicial witchcraft.
Which makes one wonder why even a great memoir of this gentleman would find its way shuttled past all other books, and on ahead of theological works, then past Reformed theological works, then past the finest and most important such works, into the headline position of the premier theological journal in the South. Truly there is nothing special or outstanding in any particular aspect of it that would warrant such a space, save that above all these normal priorities, the anonymous author of the review saw it “interesting to many readers, on account both of the author and the subject,” and the editor of that prestigious volume apparently agreed.
It is the only sensible conclusion that the sole thread of interest in the celebration of the memoirs of Taney was a powerful strain in that church body seeking to maintain the illusion of the sanctity of the southern position on race and slavery, and the established clergy’s gift for stoking the flames of its embittered hope.
Incredulous that the review even existed in this journal, let alone with such prominence, I read through, wondering if the author would dare even mention Dred as he whitewashed yet another manufactured hero. When the slavery and race issues were reached, the unbridled hypocrisy in paeans of praise would be enough to choke a Pharisee:
The whole history of the connection of this eminent civilian with, the agitating question of African slavery, is given in this instructive volume. It shows that in his relation to this subject he was a strictly representative man of the South, in the moderation, the conservatism, the consistency, the liberality, and the justness of his views, as a statesman and as the interpreter of statute law. A more humane, considerate, and gentle master never existed.
After recounting a case very early in Taney’s career, when he had represented an abolitionist (1819), before he switched his views to the entrenched proslavery position for which Dred is so infamous, this review moved to present that early case as nevertheless representative of Taney’s overall fairness and impartiality on the issue! With a level of spin that would make MSNBC and CNN blush with jealousy, the reviewer states,
This may serve not only to vindicate the candor and sense of justice with which such cases were conducted in the South, but to show that in the celebrated Dred Scott decision his course was not biased [sic] by political acerbity or party affiliations, but by the same courageous regard to the rights of conscience, the claims of justice, and the guarantees of public law, which he had uniformly recognised [sic] from the outset of his public and professional career.
In the immediate sentences, the SPR review pumps Taney into a champion of liberty and “toleration” in the same hall of fame as men like Milton, Owen, Locke, and Roger Williams—no joke.
Far from avoiding the Dred issue, the author seems intent on elevating both that decision and its author to the apex of American jurisprudence. Later in the piece, he extols Taney for exhibiting “disregard of public clamor and sublime sense of public duty” in Dred, and later adds, “No man could preside in that august Court with more dignity, impartiality, and conscientious uprightness.”
“But I’m not racist!”
But just as quickly as it finishes extolling the “rights of conscience, the claims of justice, and the guarantees of public law” exhibited in a decision that says blacks have no rights under the Constitution, have no rights the white man is bound to respect, are naturally inferior, are justly reduced to slavery for their own benefit, and rightly reduced to an ordinary article of merchandise for whatever profit could be made by it—just as soon as it was done rendering such an opinion on the opening pages of a premier theological journal, it had to make sure to add how the jurist who penned that decision was most certainly not a racist, but rather a truly awe-inspiring lover of the “African race.” Just listen to outpouring of love and charity yourself:
It so happens, that very few eminent Southern gentlemen have been so noted for kindness rendered to the African race, and by testimonies of their confidence, gratitude, and affection, as the maligned author of the Dred Scott decision. An incident is mentioned by Mr. Tyler, which shows Mr. Taney’s goodness of heart and consideration for a little colored girl. When a member of the Cabinet, and hurrying to his office at an early hour on a very cold morning, he saw a poor little negro girl trying in vain to fill her pitcher from the town pump; he did it for her himself, and said: “Tell whoever sent you to the pump, that it is too cold a morning to send out such a little girl.”
Tell me: what critic of Taney could survive after that? Really.
And with that self-assured air of moral superiority, unmatched by any other save perhaps their sense of white superiority, the SPR front-page tribute to Roberg B. Taney rounded to its close with this grand finale:
We have long been persuaded that the freedmen have no better friends than their former masters; that there are none who would more rejoice in their improvement in solid knowledge; in moral worth; in religious principle; in a word, in all the elements of personal and social progress. The better class of the Southern people feel relieved of an enormous burden of responsibility, and, as we have heard some of them say, deem that they have been emancipated rather than the negroes.
With friends like these, who needs a peculiar institution?
Lessons for us today
There are many lessons on can derive from observing these gratuitous benedictions.
First, pride knows no shame. After the shameful history of American slavery, after the racism used routinely to support it and to segregate and degrade blacks afterward, after a secession specifically over and for the preservation of that institution, after losing a war that defeated that purpose, these men would still not repent. Instead, they pulled one of the greatest propaganda spins in American history, if not the single greatest. Why, they had been the greatest friends of the black man this whole time! In fact, they never wanted the institution of slavery to begin with.
Pride knows no hypocrisy too transparent. Even in this great, straight-faced rhetorical stunt, these men could not speak without racist condescension. Looking back over the whole record of American slavery, with a vantage point to observe and consider all its evils, authors like this man and the people who read him approvingly had the naked arrogance to suggest it was actually they who had been emancipated, not the slaves. It was they, not the slaves, who had been so burdened all this time. What grand spiritual sagacity and leadership, this, which played victim, praised its own liberation from bondage, and celebrated the memorial of the author of Dred Scott. No, not only would these men not repent, they would not even acknowledge the slightest wrongdoing on their part, but created a new false narrative of their own plight, suffering, and goodness.
Second, the soul guilty of racial prejudice will find exoneration in the smallest of trifles, while overlooking the harshest of evils. It never fails even in modern discussions of race and prejudice that when an instance of racism manifests—whether it be doctrinal, the criminal justice system, discussions of history, personal interactions, opposing interethnic marriage, fuller appeals for segregation of races in history, or more—the offending party will immediately move to defend themselves with some appeal to some instance that proves how not racist they are. Rather than address the actual affront, they seek to hide behind the fig leaves of their own irrelevances.
We see it here with the southern clergy trying to defend the reputation of one of the most obvious offenders in American history—the author of Dred Scott. Indeed, in this case, the author of the review tells us explicitly that he is attempting a “vindication of the fair fame of the Chief Justice, especially in regard to the decision in the Dred Scott case.” It doesn’t get any more brazen than that.
And how is this offense of Dred to be offset?
Well, once upon a time on a cold morning, Roger Taney helped a poor little black servant girl fill up her bucket of water, and he sent back a scold to whoever sent that poor girl—this morning was too cold for a little girl!
Hey Roger, how about you send a message that says: “The system of bondage in which this little girl was enslaved is illicit, founded in rapine, and filled with violence and rape against all conscience and the laws of God. It ought to be abolished, and those involved or implicated in it are engaged in works of darkness and evil which invite the judgment of God on this land. This girl, and all other blacks and their descendants, have all the same God-given rights and liberties recognized by our Constitution as any white person, and we ought to end this vile trade, traffic, and institution right now, once and for all.” Then, instead of sending that poor girl back to her master, how about you send her North on the underground railroad?
No. Instead, we have great men who look to this meager incident on that cold morning as an excuse to overlook the whole vile system, and to exonerate and to praise themselves as to what great lovers of the African race they really were while yet upholding that system. They held the whip and chains in one hand, and the pen to write their own praise in the other.
Look, when confronted with a specific instance that involves racism, at that point, whatever else has happened anywhere else is beside the point. There is no work of man anywhere—big or small—that can excuse continuing in the evil that is present, on your lips, and on your watch. Those who sit in silence at that point are no better than the offenders they watch, and those who praise them.
Third and finally, the spiritual institutions—established churches, especially—were the ones acting this way. These should have been the last institutions on earth to be found guilty of such hypocritical effrontery. They should have been the first to have been confronting the sins of their fathers and of themselves. They not only failed in this, they not only dragged their feet in doing so, they consciously led the resistance to try to make sure nothing like racial equality ever happened in America. They consciously led the intellectual assault against it.
Here we see a rather exceptional—even if somewhat obscure and overlooked today—example of it. A review of a laudatory memoir of a Roman Catholic political figure published front and center in one of the most prominent, official, Protestant denominational journals of the day. There was no reason for this whatsoever, by any standard, except in a sort of southern partisan virtue signaling of support for the most onerous of defenses of American slavery and racism, the Dred Scott decision and its author.
There are yet lessons here for us today, too. Do not think that because you belong to a classy, nice-looking, well-groomed, diplomaed and degreed church with nice white trim that you are free from the very “deceitful lusts” Scripture tells us lurk hidden in the heart. Do not think that our finely-touched confessions and faithful, smiling church attendance equate to sanctification. It’s precisely when the strains and discomfort of conviction invade our purest of safe spaces that the work of the Holy Spirit, or the stiffnecked buck of spiritual defiance, make all the difference. It is how your heart reacts or submits to the work of God when we are confronted with reality, the truth, that matters.
And it is precisely then, also, that we can tell whether our institutions today, and their leadership, are truly applying the law of God, or are trying to create the same types of insulations for their own inactions, or justifications for their own failures.
We need to get a clear view of how poorly the Christians and their churches failed in that era, when they should not have failed. But more importantly, we need to learn from how they tried to cover their sin and justify it. We need to learn from their thinly-veneered hypocrisy and their sheer arrogance and pride in celebrating evil. We need to learn from their failure in continuing to celebrate the evil works and personalities of the worst of failed characters. We need to learn from the ease they found in exonerating themselves of racism by appeals to their own goodness, even the merest of trifles, while ignoring the mountains of evil all around them. We need to learn from their pride in never repenting of their compliance and cover for utter wickedness—not once confessing the slightest of wrongdoing. We need to learn from their virtual blame shifting and self-victimization—looking over the whole history of their sins only to declare themselves the ones liberated from slavery. We need to learn from the churches’ and the clergy’s leadership in this deep, dark evil of their day. We need to recall, and have it imprinted on our minds and hearts, that these were the leaders of the leaders, the clergy’s clergymen, who prospered this evil at the upper echelons of society, and in the pulpits and places of prominence throughout it.
We need to take heed, for the same sins continue today, perhaps in less brazen and obvious form, but certainly of the same type and species. We need to take heed, for there are still Roger Taneys among us today, and there are still those who would write his hagiographies. There are still those clergy who would delight to give such ideas a prominent place in their curricula. There are still those deceitful lusts in each of our hearts to absolve ourselves of our duty to our neighbors, to make ourselves victims instead of repenting where needed, to justify our sins and failures with the most abstract or obtuse of appeals to how many black friends we have, how integrated we really are, just how many great works we have done—or even the slightest thread of righteousness we can find to do the job.
Take heed friends, for the day will come a hundred forty or so years hence when someone will read our journals and shake their heads at why such great professors of Christianity nevertheless backwardly manifested their faith in praising the Roger Taneys of our day, even after the battle was long over and the issue decided. The day may come when the Christians of a future era look back on our trampling of the truth and witness which we had in our hands, and the associations we fought to protect and laud, then compare our most momentous decisions with the great professions we made, and wonder whether we were even really Christians.
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