Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney : Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers
The clashes between President Abraham Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney over slavery, secession, and the president's constitutional war powers went to the heart of Lincoln's presidency. James Simon, author of the acclaimed What Kind of Nation -- an account of the battle between President Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall to define the new nation -- brings to vivid life the passionate struggle during the worst crisis in the nation's history, the Civil War. The issues that underlaid that crisis -- race, states' rights, and the president's wartime authority -- resonate today in the nation's political debate.
Lincoln and Taney's bitter disagreements began with Taney's Dred Scott opinion in 1857, when the chief justice declared that the Constitution did not grant the black man any rights that the white man was bound to honor. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln attacked the opinion as a warped judicial interpretation of the Framers' intent and accused Taney of being a member of a pro-slavery national conspiracy.
In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln insisted that the South had no legal right to secede. Taney, who administered the oath of office to Lincoln, believed that the South's secession was legal and in the best interests of both sections of the country.
Once the Civil War began, Lincoln broadly interpreted his constitutional powers as commander in chief to prosecute the war, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, censoring the mails, and authorizing military courts to try civilians for treason. Taney opposed every presidential wartime initiative and openly challenged Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He accused the president of assuming dictatorial powers in violation of the Constitution. Lincoln ignored Taney's protest, convinced that his actions were both constitutional and necessary to preserve the Union.
Almost 150 years after Lincoln's and Taney's deaths, their words and actions reverberate in constitutional debate and political battle. Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney tells their dramatic story in fascinating detail.
Starred Review. This surprisingly taut and gripping book by NYU law professor Simon (What Kind of Nation) examines the limits of presidential prerogative during the Civil War. Lincoln and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney saw eye to eye on certain matters; both, for example, disliked slavery. But beginning in 1857, when Lincoln criticized Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case, the pair began to spar. They diverged further once Lincoln became president when Taney insisted that secession was constitutional and preferable to bloodshed, and blamed the Civil War on Lincoln. In 1861, Taney argued that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was illegal. This holding was, Simon argues, "a clarion call for the president to respect the civil liberties of American citizens." In an 1862 group of cases, Taney joined a minority opinion that Lincoln lacked the authority to order the seizure of Southern ships. Had Taney had the chance, suggests Simon, he would have declared the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional; he and Lincoln agreed that the Constitution left slavery up to individual states, but Lincoln argued that the president's war powers trumped states' rights. Simon's focus on Lincoln and Taney makes for a dramatic, charged narrative - and the focus on presidential war powers makes this historical study extremely timely. (Nov.)
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Simon & Schuster
November 08, 2006
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Excerpt from Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney by James F. Simon
President Abraham Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney bitterly disagreed on three fundamental issues -- slavery, secession, and Lincoln's constitutional authority during the Civil War. But had they known each other in less perilous times, they might have been friends, or at least respectful adversaries. In fact, they had much in common.
Lincoln and Taney were homely physical specimens -- tall, gaunt, slightly cadaverous figures, usually attired in drab, ill-fitting clothes. Each man believed in a divine design that guided him, though Lincoln shirked organized religion while Taney was a devout Catholic. Both men were known for their personal integrity, fairness, and compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Self-effacing in public, they possessed an unrelenting will to succeed.
In their prime, Taney and Lincoln were among the best litigators in their respective states of Maryland and Illinois. Without flourish, Taney demonstrated the extraordinary ability to lay the facts and law of a case bare before a judge or jury. Lincoln often embroidered his major legal points with folksy stories, but he never lost sight of the argument that would win the case for his client.
Both men disapproved of the institution of slavery. As a young lawyer, Taney freed his slaves and pronounced slavery immoral in a Frederick, Maryland, courtroom. Since childhood, Lincoln had considered slavery wrong and never wavered in his conviction. Taney and Lincoln were actively involved in colonization societies whose purpose was to remove free blacks (including, they hoped, an increasing number of emancipated slaves) from the United States to be resettled in a self-governing colony in Africa. But as lawyers, they defended the property rights of slaveowners under state laws that protected slavery.
Taney and Lincoln agreed on the need for a strong Union. Each was active in state politics and was considered a moderate, though they followed national leaders with very different philosophies. Taney campaigned vigorously for the populist Democrat Andrew Jackson in 1828. Like Jackson, Taney was suspicious of vested corporate interests. After Jackson was elected president, he appointed Taney to be his Attorney General and, later, Secretary of the Treasury. Together, Jackson and Taney fought the Second Bank of the United States, which they believed symbolized autocratic corporate power. When Chief Justice John Marshall died, Taney was Jackson's choice to replace him.
Lincoln's political hero, Kentucky's Henry Clay, challenged Jackson in his reelection bid for the presidency in 1832. The twenty-three-year-old Lincoln (who was a generation younger than Taney) supported Clay's American System, which defended the Bank of the United States as essential to the economic prosperity of the country. After Clay lost the 1832 election, Lincoln served four terms in the Illinois legislature and became a successful Springfield lawyer. Throughout those years, he remained loyal to Clay, supporting him in two more losing efforts to win the presidency.
The issue of slavery did not dominate the national political debate during the 1840s, as it would the next decade. Taney and Lincoln took cautious public positions on slavery in the forties. As Chief Justice, Taney carefully steered the Court away from expansive decisions when slavery was an issue, insisting that the relevant state law governed. In his single term in the House of Representatives in the late forties, Lincoln did not take a leadership role on the slavery issue. His only initiative on the subject was to propose a referendum for the District of Columbia that abolished slavery, but enforced the Fugitive Slave Law and compensated slaveowners who freed their slaves. His compromise proposal did not satisfy either abolitionists or pro-slavery members of Congress and was never formally introduced.