Aug 21, 2017
Debasing Roger Taney
When the people fear to criticize their stone and metal icons, there is tyranny. When the icons fear criticism from the people, there is liberty.
It was Wednesday afternoon, about three o’clock, and I was looking at the empty plinth where Roger Taney used to be. For most people familiar with him at all it’s probably from his widely unloved record as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For me, though, he’ll always be Jackson’s fourth Treasury Secretary, appointed after William Duane refused to remove government deposits from the Bank of the United States. Jackson rewarded Taney’s loyalty with the late John Marshall’s position on the Court. Taney became one of the most important Jacksonians of his era, one of the men whose actions prior to the Civil War are now widely considered some of the most responsible for that supposedly “irrepressible conflict.” Baltimore’s Confederate-sympathizing Walters family commissioned the statue from German artist William Henry Rinehart in 1871 and donated it to the city in 1887. Since then, Taney’s sat there scowling at passersby. Taney—like Calhoun, Jackson, and so many others of their day—was a dour, sour-looking person who at least appears like he never laughed.
I live just a few blocks from here and regularly walk my dogs by the park. I live a large portion of my life in the nineteenth century (as it were), and I do think I know men like Taney pretty well. Every time I walked past, my mind unconsciously ran through the laundry list of reasons I know Taney. The weight of his awfulness pressed on me enough to wish I could do what everyone else did—just walk on by. But there he sat, always looking at me while I was to his front, no doubt muttering about me in disgust as I walked away. I didn’t need a statue to tell me who Taney was. I’d read all about him from the historical record. No one can erase him from history, and no one can change the stream of events which involved him or those affected by his actions. He and so many other people can’t be removed from our past, but do we really need them stalking us in the present, too?
But now Taney’s gone—whisked away to a place unknown to me, still twisting his face into that permanent scowl. I’m really not sure what the city government did with him, and I’m not entirely sure I care, either. I do find it compelling that I’ve never seen the park so full of people taking pictures. Sure, they’re selfies and family photos with an empty plinth, but I never saw people take pictures with Taney. Today they’re coming from all over town or stopping off while on their usual routes through the city. After I put the dogs back inside, I returned to the park with my notebook and a pen. I wanted to know more about why, exactly, people felt the need to come out and pay conscious recognition to this small monument now that its jowly, sour icon had retired from his post. I know what academics and commentators “on both sides” have to say about the matter, but what did these actual spectators—celebrants, even—have to say about this especially truckling Treasury Secretary, this especially bad Chief Justice?
I didn’t get to speak with everyone I saw—that would have been impossible. There were too many of them. People nearly constantly came and went, though the crowd never got particularly large at one time. The first group I saw was composed of four young white people, two men and two women. One touched his hand to the empty nameplate and they took turns photographing themselves for about two minutes and moved right along.
A white woman wouldn’t give me her name, but she said she was thirty-seven years old. She rode her bike up to the corner, parked it, and observed the empty space. She had dark hair, dark clothes, dark makeup (if memory serves), and immediately looked askance at me after I offered my Cato business card. I explained that I was an historian out here looking for an idea of why people were suddenly so interested in Taney. She told me that she was here to document an important historical moment, to appreciate the challenges now offered against “revisionist Confederate history,” and the racist legacy of resistance to federal supremacy. When I started to note that Taney was not a Confederate, and that perhaps it is important to remember the Union’s own race problem, she cut me off several times. Yes, yes, she assured me—Cato is libertarian and libertarians have their own weird views on this sort of thing and she seemed quite sure that I was about to defend this horrible agent of statecraft. But, of course, I have no intentions of defending Taney or anyone like him. I managed to get a solid minute or two to explain Taney’s actual role on that Union court:
See, here’s the difficult thing about Taney. His Dred Scott ruling argued that black people were never intended to be American citizens and the fugitive slave before him therefore had no standing to sue. (What’s more, he said Congress could not restrict slave property in the territories.) Not to brag, but I’m no lawyer—nor even a legal historian. The technicalities of legal rulings interest me far less than their ideological substance, so I was concerned to follow one point of it through with these people at the Monument park—What if Taney was correct? What if men like Washington (I gestured behind me to the original Washington Monument) really were flawed and imperfect enough to have thought black people should never become citizens? Should statues to these supposedly great men stand while Taney’s is removed?
Again, the anonymous woman seemed to think I was baiting her into one of our nefarious libertarian logic traps, specially designed for nabbing up sheeple. Yes, yes, she assured me, the Founders were problematic, but adding the amendment process to the Constitution clearly shows that they wanted things to change! Besides, Washington was an American hero, not a rebellious Confederate. She admitted that she hadn’t put much thought into whether the Union government that actually survived the war was also complicit in slavery and racism, but she did agree that people with power have tried to systematically shut down black and Native American voices of resistance. But with such a great national government and a pantheon illustrious heroes like Washington, one might wonder why people of color complain so much.
If only amendments created liberty!
I decided to pass on another white woman with her two sons, opting instead to speak with a older-looking black man taking pictures with a very good-looking camera. He might have a different sort of insight to offer.
Reggie Price, 61, has lived in Baltimore all his life. He used to get chased out of Patterson Park by white children shouting “Nigger,” at him. He agreed with me that while that doesn’t seem to happen much any more, the social pressure brought on by smartphone culture has not changed many Americans’ underlying racism. If they could get away with it, plenty of people would still chase him around shouting slurs. Reggie is a chaplain at Morgan State University and an amateur photographer who visited the Taney site in response to the Charlottesville riots. Times like these are “shining a light on the racism that’s in this country,” he said, and Reggie wanted his parish to “have some history” to go along with their news. He hoped that this could be the “beginning of something big,” a turning point in the average American’s consciousness about racism. Also, he believed, a moment to transcend racism and think of ourselves more like he identifies himself: first as a man, then an American, then black.
It sounds pretty good—to many people, at least—but how to get there in a satisfying and ethical way? He agreed with me that Taney had a point about the Founders like Washington up there (again, gesturing to the huge monument behind us). It’s “very true,” he said, that “they didn’t care about my ancestors.” They cared so little, in fact, that they were willing to politically bargain away two-fifths of each slave’s humanity. It’s important to know the “negative history,” Reggie told me. It brought him great strength to see all the white spectators there. To him, it meant that “White Americans have really gravitated toward freedom for all.” Some fearful and always-suspicious few were scared of losing their power, for sure. Their voices may be the loudest some days, but Reggie seems hopeful that they are losing the numbers game.
I wish I could have that kind of hope, but I don’t. Reggie didn’t know anything about Taney before this story hit and he still didn’t know anything after it. He was there specifically to learn. So were many of the others stopping by all day, but their actual learning likely consisted of very little. Reggie was, I suspect, quite an unusual case. Most people who acknowledged the empty plinth did so for just that half-second it takes to set your feet, snap a picture, and keep moving. People would get off the bus at the Washington Monument, go about their day, and get in the tiniest—but still tweetable—amount of history they could in the process. After parting with Reggie, I noticed one very well-dressed, middle-aged white man ask a younger man nearby to take his photo for him. That done, he quickly scampered back to his car which was parked firmly in the “No Stopping” zone. He sat there for several more minutes, presumably tweeting his new picture. He was there and gone in a short time, but he did give money to a homeless black woman before leaving. Perhaps Reggie’s right and this is a big moment for sculpting a new sort of freedom-oriented American political culture.
For my next conversation, I met Kay Adler, 77, a fellow resident of Mt. Vernon. Kay is an African- and Native American woman, she’s been a photographer for thirty-eight years, and her pictures can be seen with some regularity at the nearby Maryland Historical Society. Kay also didn’t know much at all about Taney, except a vague notion that he had something to do with slavery. Nonetheless, his removal from the park was “very important” to her. His statue was a “symbol of racism and inequality,” he was and remains a divisive, dehumanizing figure. Importantly, she also agreed with my contention that Taney was (at least) sort of right about Dred Scott—many of those Founders never intended him to be a citizen. “America was never great,” she declared, citing the horrors to which early Americans subjected both of her peoples. Ours is a “country that’s schizophrenic,” resembling “one big psychiatric unit,” where the residents constantly fight the same old battles and some try to oppress others, who often resist with their lives.
Her frank approach to the past makes perfect sense to me: the Washingtons and Taneys of the world tried to liquidate one side of her family and enslaved the other. Nonetheless, she thought we could safely stop at removing Taney. Taking down Washington would achieve another symbolic victory at the expense of too much goodwill from the public-at-large. She is an outspoken atheist (perhaps she’d prefer agnostic—I did not ask) without any of Chaplain Reggie’s faith-based hope for the future. Our psych ward is now ruled over by a “twisted” man who “has no idea, and no compassion.” “He does not represent the thinkers” in our society, she said sadly, but still—perhaps this whole Charlottesville mess could be a blessing in disguise. A blessing from whom, exactly, I know not.
Richard Selden, 58, is from Connecticut, but he’s tried to understand Maryland-style southern culture as best he could in his nine years here. Richard is an art historian at the Peabody Institute next to the Monument park. We spent a while talking about the park’s history, the complicated relationships Marylanders maintained with both sides of the Civil War, and the (temporary) outpouring of spectators to the park. News of his exit certainly “forced people to say ‘Who the Hell was Taney?’ Richard knew plenty about Taney beforehand—he knew all about the statue’s history, after all, and you can’t separate its erection from Taney’s legacy. “Most people will never reconcile with their legacy,” Richard noted with an inflection indicating that his words carried a fundamental truth. And perhaps they do. Richard himself explained that for him, if the monuments were not built and installed for political purposes (a Confederate veterans memorial, for example), then modern-day Americans should not have to renounce that history.
The real problem with these monuments and statues, as I see it at least, is that they foster the sorts of distorted historical perspectives “from above” drilled into us everywhere else. The statues are not the sickness, they’re symptoms. Our sicknesses are nationalism, racism, sexism, imperialism, and the rest. When we enshrine historical figures with complicated, problematic, often unpleasant and positively immoral records in public monuments, we pass off political propaganda as public art. Despite Richard’s qualification for Confederate veterans, all displays of public art are political by nature.
I then spent several cigarettes-worth of time talking to a local sculptor and architect named Jonathan. Jonathan’s stance was both direct and nuanced: “I don’t think they belong in public space,” he said, but he hoped they would keep the empty plinth. Perhaps the city would replace Taney with some sort of rotating contemporary art display. In any case, he pointed out that turning monuments into mere sculptures was not an exercise in erasing the past. Once again, nothing and no one could actually erase Taney from the past. He’ll always be lurking there, scowling at the prying historian.
Debasing a monument is a technical process for artists. It literally involves removing the sculpture from its pedestal, and perhaps we need a lot more of that before people start seriously reconsidering the moral characters and worldviews of America’s founders. A debased monument is not necessarily destroyed or locked away from public view, but it is no longer granted such an exalted and privileged public status. A debased Roger Taney is not an erased Roger Taney; Taney debased stays in the past where he belongs.
Jonathan knew a bit about Taney from a local arts project in the park a few years earlier. He knows full well that monuments in public spaces are necessarily political, as are any alterations made to them over time. Many of these monuments always were and remain very public symbols of a particular political order and a particular racial hierarchy within it. That political order, that racial hierarchy, goes as far back in American history as Bacon’s Rebellion and further. I met William, 18, a white man from Taneytown, Maryland. He heard the story that morning, thought it was “so cool” that Taney was now gone, and turned out to see for himself. William and Kayla, a seventeen year-old African American, agreed that slavery was “a horrible part of our history,” but alas, they do not see much of its institutional legacy.
Neither William nor Kayla felt comfortable leveling the great Washington, debasing him to a mere statue or historical text. They almost seemed to want him to remain part of our modern propaganda, ostensibly because they still believe in and support the government he helped create. For William, Confederates were especially egregious, and their achievements are overshadowed by their treason. Even more so when Confederates are being posthumously mobilized in support of white nationalism and Nazism today.
When I noted that Washington signed the first Fugitive Slave Act (1793) into law, they seemed surprised, perhaps a bit disappointed, but still defensive. (Would Washington hear their treasons from all the way up there on his pedestal? They weren’t willing to risk it.) Kayla concluded our discussion with the sobering recognition that debasing statues does not really change people’s ideologies—Tell me about it!
I was sitting on the bench, observing the camera crew setting up in front of the plinth, when Craig (70, white) approached me. His voice low, his eyes looking directly at me in that knowing sort of way, he asked “What’s your opinion of…of all this?” Well,” I replied, “I was about to ask you the same thing.” I told him that since he asked first I would go first. I told him my purpose and my views frankly and he responded in turn.
He was just visiting for the day from New York and happened to be nearby the park so he came on out to see it. To him, the removals were “overdoing it,” though he seemed willing enough to have a challenging conversation about it. There was something “very Orwellian” to him about this, removing Taney like so many facts ‘down the memory hole.’ It’s “too PC” for someone like him, who strives always to follow the Golden Rule in his own life. But Orwell’s memory holes swallowed up actual historical records—party propaganda set the limits of acceptable debate in Oceania. Living monuments to Big Brother penetrated every household in the land by law.
Craig—for all his willingness to talk with me about it—didn’t know anything about Taney before then. When I asked, he said Taney was from the Revolutionary period (“I hope”) and almost scoffed “I’m sure he owned slaves.” He also managed (unprompted) to refer to Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemings as “a dalliance.” When I pointed out that slaves couldn’t exactly refuse their masters and that Jefferson was in reality a serial rapist, he took my point and more or less apologized for the euphemism. There’s that Golden Rule.
Sofia (25, white) and Ethan (22, black) both live here in Baltimore and gave me much more hope. Sofia had a light textbook sort of knowledge about Taney and Ethan knew “literally nothing,” about him before this story hit. Both agreed with me about Dred Scott and the Founders. Ethan feels this legacy every day, and both think many more things have to change still. Many more conversations about the past should be had. Sofia championed “callout culture” and intersectionality—two excellent bottom-up paths to peaceful cultural change.
Sensing some compatibility in our views and approaches, I somewhat pleadingly laid out my carte blanche anti-monument position—it’s creepy to build shrines to the state, temples to those who used force and authority to manipulate others. We shouldn’t want to exalt these people above the rest of us, and we don’t need them to paternalistically guide us through the present or the future. I doubt they left our conversations a pair of Spoonerites, but their serious consideration of iconoclasm was inspiring to this fellow Millennial.
Monuments are solid, powerful propaganda objects built to last forever. While they stand as more than mere statues, we have a tendency to learn hagiography, not history. We allow the Taneys, the Washingtons, and the Jeffersons to dictate our lives from across the ages. (Jefferson, of course, would probably be the most horrified by the ways we deify statesmen.) When we let these power-mongers of the past dictate our world—when we treat them as true idols above critique and scorn—we cede our own agency to the dead. These people were indeed “products of their times,” as are we all. But no human institutions last forever, and neither should our heroes and idols.