House votes to remove bust of Roger B. Taney, Supreme Court Justice who wrote Dred Scott’s ruling
“We must honor those who have advanced justice, not glorify those who have stood in its way,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. “Sending this legislation to the President’s desk is a major step in our efforts to tell the stories of those Americans who fought for a more perfect union — and weed out those who don’t belong in the halls of Congress. .”
In 1857, Taney wrote the decision in the case of Scott – a black man born into slavery who used the courts to demand his freedom – that black people were not American citizens and could not expect federal government protections.
People of African descent, Taney wrote at the time, “had been regarded for more than a century before as beings of an inferior order, and utterly unfit to associate with the white race, whether in the social or political relations; and so inferior that they had no rights for the white man to respect. A black person, Taney added, “could justly and legally be enslaved for their benefit.”
Taney’s opinion, which also said Congress could not ban slavery from U.S. territories, has come to be regarded as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. A bust of Taney stands outside the former Supreme Court chamber on the first floor of the Capitol.
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“Taney’s Authorship of Dred Scott v. Sandford… renders a bust in his likeness unfit for the honor of being displayed to the many visitors to the Capitol,” reads the text of the bill. “…While the removal of the bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from the Capitol does not relieve Congress of the historic wrongs it committed to protect the institution from slavery, it does express Congressional recognition of one of the most notorious wrongs to ever take place in one of its chambers.
On the House floor on Dec. 14, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) said the bill is literally about “who we put on a pedestal.”
“The United States Capitol is a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality,” Lofgren said. “It is visited by millions of people every year. What we choose to honor and who we choose to honor in this building must represent our values. Chief Justice Taney, who in the infamous Dr Scott ruling said African Americans could never be citizens of the United States and had no constitutional rights — it fails to meet the standard.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) noted that the legislation — “to make Taney missing” — has bipartisan support.
Legislation to remove Taney’s bust was first introduced by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) in March 2020. (Taney, like Hoyer and Trone, was from Maryland.) This bill passed the House that year by a vote of 305 to 113, but did not advance to the Republican-controlled Senate. .
Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that Taney’s interpretation of the Constitution is one every American should reject. “The good news is not only that we’re replacing the Taney statue, but we’re also planning a bust of Chief Justice Marshall,” Hoyer said.
The vote to remove Taney’s likeness comes amid a push in recent years by Democrats to remove statues, portraits and other artwork from the Capitol honoring Confederate leaders and other controversial figures. The House voted last year to remove statues of Confederate leaders from the Capitol, and a statue of Taney was removed from the Maryland State House in 2017.
During the bill’s reintroduction last year, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (DS.C.) pointed to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in which some supporters of President Donald Trump carried Confederate flags. At the time, the bill to remove Taney’s statue also included language that would have removed statues of Confederate leaders from the Capitol.
“There are still remnants in this hallowed building that glorify the people and a movement that embraced this flag and sought to divide and destroy our great country,” Clyburn said then. “This legislation will remove these commemorations from places of honor and demonstrate that as Americans we do not celebrate those who seek to divide us.”
The bill the House passed Dec. 13 was narrower in scope and did not include removing Confederate statues from the Capitol.
Lofgren said the following day that she was disappointed that the bill only dealt with the bust of Taney but that the House “should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good”.
“Let us take this opportunity to rid our Capitol of the bust of a man who does not deserve the honor and add that of a man who unquestionably deserves it,” she said. “Now some may say that this action is an attempt to erase and forget our history. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must never forget the shameful times of slavery, segregation and racism of our nation. But it’s about who we choose to honor – who we literally choose to put on a pedestal and display as emblematic of our values.
Mariana Alfaro, Eugene Scott and John Wagner contributed to this report.