Congressional Globe February 23, 1865

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Argument on the floor of the Senate between Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois and Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts concerning the creation of a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
Senate of the United States

On the Senate floor, February 23, 1865 the following occurred:

Mr. TRUMBULL. I now move to proceed to the consideration of House bill No. 748.

Mr. SUMNER. What is that?

Mr. TRUMBULL. A bill providing for a bust of the late Chief Justice Taney, to be placed in the Supreme Court Room of the United States.

Mr. SUMNER. I object to that; that now an emancipated country should make a bust ot the author of the Dred Scott decision.

The PRESIDING OFFICER, (Mr. POMEROY) The question before the Senate is on taking up the bill.

Mr. TRUMBULL. I trust the bill will be taken up; that a person who has presided over the Supreme Court of the United States for more than a quarter century, and has added reputation to the character of the judiciary of the United States throughout the world is not to be hooted down by an exclamation that the country is to be emancipated. Suppose he did make a wrong decision. no man is infallible. he was a great and learned and an able man. I trust the Senate will take up the bill, and not only take it up, but pass it up.

Mr. SUMNER. The Senator from Illinois says that this idea of a bust is not to be hooted down. let me tell that Senator that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves. The Senator says that he for twenty five years administered justice. He administered justice at last wickedly, and degraded the judiciary of the country, and degrade the age.

Mr. JOHNSON. I cannot fail to express my astonishment at the course of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts, which he thinks it, I suppose, his duty to pursue. Sir, if the times in which we are living are honestly and truly recorded by the historian, I think the honorable member from Massachusetts will be very happy if he stands as pure and as high upon the historic page as the learned judge who is now no more.

The honorable member seems to suppose that the decision in the Dred Scott case was a decision of the Chief Justice alone. It was not so. In that decision a majority of the court concurred. Whether that decision is right nor not, permit me to say that to the honorable member there are men belonging to the profession at least his equals, who think it to have been right right; but whether right or wrong, those who knew the moral character of the Chief Justice as well as I did would blush to say that his name is to be execrated among men. Sir, the decision of that learned jurist are now quoted with approbation everywhere, and there is not a judge upon the bench now, three or four of them having been selected by the present incumbent of the presidential office, who will not say at once that a brighter intellect never adorned the judicial station. But it is a matter of history. Every judge who has been at the head of that tribunal has his bust placed in that court-room. Does the honorable member wish to have it unknown in future times that there was such a Chief Justice? I suppose he does; I presume he does and why? Because he differed with him. If so, to be consistent, he will be compelled to wish that two thirds of the profession in the United States and two thirds of the country, should be forgotten in all after time, for I am sure I am no mistaken in supposing that at least that number will be found in opposition to the peculiar opinions of the honorable member from Massachusetts.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Chair must insist that upon a motion to take up, the merits of the bill cannot be considered.

Mr. JOHNSON. I beg pardon. It was only because the honorable member thought proper, and I take it for granted he considered it a matter of duty, to assail the memory of a departed and a great, and a virtuous man, that I deemed it my duty to rise up and say a word in his vindication.

Mr. MCDOUGALL. Mr. President -

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Chair must repeat to Senators that this discussion is out of order except by unanimous consent.

Mr. MCDOUGALL. For the same reason that these remarks have been permitted I may be allowed to express a sentiment at least in response to the rude, the very rude, remarks of the Senator from Massachusetts; and I will express my sentiment in a brief form of words. When the judge of whom he has spoken so rudely stood in his own place the Senator was not more worthy than this, to stand at the door of his chamber.

The motion to take up the bill was agreed to, there being, on a division - ayes twenty-one, noes not counted; and the Senate, as in Committee of the Whole, proceeded to consider the bill (H.R. No. 748) providing for a bust of the late Chief Justice Taney to be placed in the Supreme Court Room of the United States. it requires the Joint Committee of the two Houses of Congress on the Library to contract with a suitable artist for the execution, in marble, and delivery in the Supreme Court Room of the United States in the Capitol, of a bust of the late Chief Justice Roger B. Taney; and appropriate the sum of $1,000, or so much thereof as may be necessary, for this purpose.

Mr. SUMNER. I objected to this joint resolution some days ago, when it was reported by the Senator from Illinois, (Mr. Trumbull) and he was disposed to hurry it at once upon the Senate, to the exclusion of important business. I objected to it again to-day, but it was from no indisposition to discuss it.

I know well the trivial apology which may be made for this proposition, and the Senator from Maryland (Mr. Johnson) has already shown something of the hardihood with which it may be defended. But in the performance fo public duty I am indifferent to both.

The apology is too obvious. "Nothing but good of the dead." this is a familiar saying, which is to a certain extent, may be acknowledged. But it is entirely inapplicable when statues and busts are proposed in honor of the dead. Then, at least, truth must prevail.

If a man has done evil during life he must not be complimented in marble. And if indiscreetly it is proposed to decree such a signal honor, then the evil he has done must be exposed; nor shall any false delicacy seal my lips. it is not enough that he held high place, that he enjoyed worldly honors, or was endowed with intellectual gifts.

Who wickedly is wise, or madly brave, Is but the more a fool, the more a knave."

What is the office of Chief Justice, if it has been used to betray Human Rights? The crime is great according to the position of the criminal. If you were asked, sir, to mention the incident of our history previous to the rebellion which was in all respects most worthy of condemnation, most calculated to cause the blush of shame, and most deadly in its consequences, I do not doubt that you would say the Dred Scott decision, and especially the wicked opinion of the Chief Justice on that occasion. I say this with pain. I do not seek this debate. But when a proposition is made to honor the author of this wickedness with a commemorative bust, at the expense of the country, I am obliged to speak plainly.

I am not aware that the English judges who decided contrary to Liberty in the case of shipmoney, and thus sustained the king in those pretensions which ended in civil war, have ever been commemorated in marble. I am not aware that Jeffreys, Chief Justice and Chancellor of England, famous for his alents as for his crimes, has found any niche in Westminster Hall. No, sir. They have been left to the judgment of history, and there I insist that Taney shall be left in sympathetic companionship. Each was the tool of unjust power. But the Power which Taney served was none other than that Slave Power which has involved the country in war.

I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable that anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteousness judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also. I have here the authentic report of the case, from which it appears that the Chief Justice, while enforcing his unjust conclusion which was to blast a whole race, used the following language:

"It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation so that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. 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."

In these words, solemnly and authoritatively uttered by the Chief Justice of the United States, humanity and truth were set at naught, and the whole country was humbled. "Then you and I and all of us fell down while bloody slavery flourished over us." I quote his words fully so that there can be no mistake. Here then is his expressed assertion, that at the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the adoption of the national Constitution in 1789, in Europe as well as in our own country, "colored men had no rights which white men were bound to respect." Now, sir, this is false-atrocious false. It is notorious that there were States of the Union where, at the adoption of the Constitution, colored persons were free, and even in the enjoyment of the electoral franchise, while in England the Somersett case had already decided that there could be no distinction of persons on account of color, and Scotland, Holland, and France had all declared the same rule. On this point there can be no question. And yet this Chief Justice, whom you propose to honor with a marble bust, had the unblushing effrontery to declare that at that time, as well abroad as at home, "colored men had no rights which white men were bound to respect;" and this he said in order to justify a wicked interpretation of the Constitution. Search the judicial annals and you will find no perversion of truth more flagrant.

Sir, it is not fit, it is not decent, that such a person should be commemorated by a vote of Congress; especially at this time when liberty is at last recognized. If you have money to appropriate in this way, let it be in honor of the defenders of liberty now gathered to their fathers. There was John Quincy Adams. There also was Joshua R. Giddings. Let their busts be placed in the court-room, if you please, where with marble lips they can plead always for human rights and teach judge and advocate the glory and the beauty of justice. Then will you do something not entirely unworthy of a regenerated land; something which will be an example for future times; something which will help to fix the standard of history.

I know that in the court-room there are busts of the other Chief Justices. Very well. So in the hall of the doges, at Venice, there are pictures of all who filled that high office in unbroken succession, with the exception of Marino Faliero, who, although as venerable from years as Taney, who deemed unworthy of a place in that line. Where his picture should have been there was a vacant space which testified always to the justice of the republic. Let such a vacant space in our court-room testify to the justice of our Republic. Let it speak in warning to all who would betray liberty.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. If no amendment be proposed, the resolution will be reported to the Senate.

Mr. SUMNER. I move to strike out the name of "Roger B. Taney" and insert "Joshua R. Giddings," and on that I ask for the yeas and neas.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).