I normally don’t do much on contemporary politics, but unfortunately political correctness is starting to have a real effect on public life and Civil War studies. The latest craze is what might be called the historical cleansing of America of all symbols which might offend the usual suspects. It started with Confederate monuments, but it hasn’t stopped there. The latest one is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney. His statue stands outside the Maryland State House, and has been targeted for removal by the usual group of activists. Taney, however, was no Confederate, but remained loyal to the Union until his death in 1864. His crime was to have written the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which formally recognized slavery and denied that anyone of African ancestry was a “person” under the Constitution. Taney was one of the country’s top legal minds and thought this might settle the question, but instead it simply inflamed it. Only three years later, a group of Southern states seceded to form a nation of their own.
Taney personally had no brief for slavery and thought it a pernicious institution. A slave owner himself, he had unilaterally freed them and provided for the support of those too old to work. However, he strongly believed that under the Constitution this was a matter for the states and not the federal government. When the war began it was Taney who acted as the guardian of civil liberties against the encroachments of the Lincoln administration. However, was a sick man and unable to devote much time or energy to it (he died in 1864). I’ve always wondered what might have happened if he had been in better health. As it was, there were rumors (never substantiated) that Lincoln had gone so far as to prepare a secret warrant for his arrest.
Another non-Confederate to be recently targeted is Andrew Jackson, presumably because he was a slave owner and especially because of the Indian removals. However, these worthies should also remember that it was Jackson who forced South Carolina to back down during the 1832-33 Nullification Crisis. There are also rumblings about Thomas Jefferson.
The latest action against the Confederacy is brought to us by the City of Alexandria, VA, which wants to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway as well as to remove of the statue of a Confederate soldier there.
All this brings to mind the old and rather bitter joke current in the former Soviet Union—that everyone knew exactly what the future would be, because Comrades Marx and Lenin had laid it all out and it was a matter of historical inevitability that could not be changed. No, the problem was the past—that was what kept changing. Every few years the history books would be rewritten to accommodate the latest shift of the political winds, and individuals who had fallen out of favor were excised from the pages and airbrushed from photographs as if they had never existed. I never thought I’d see it here, but we certainly seem to be headed that way ourselves.
UPDATE: The latest target for removal is Christopher Columbus. Perhaps we should all go back to Europe. And of course there is that perennial favorite, Gone With the Wind, which I think would be done only over Ted Turner’s dead body.
As for Lincoln and Taney, if you’d like an unbiased look the two, the writing and impact of Dred Scott, and the habeas corpus cases, I recommend Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers. Lincoln pretty much invented “war powers” out of whole cloth—no other president had claimed such sweeping authority. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that gives the president the power to unilaterally suspend habeas corpus and arbitrarily arrest civilians.
I took a look at that a couple of years ago in relation to the president’s war powers and the laws of war, including the Lieber Code. Some of the measures Lincoln took or approved of were quite shocking.
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