The Supreme Court Under Jackson

Roger B. Taney. Photograph by: Mathew Brady.

John Marshall, perhaps the greatest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, died on July 6, 1835. As his life was coming to a close, he wrote Joseph Story, “I yield slowly and reluctantly to the conviction that our constitution cannot last.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 439 quoting John Marshall to Joseph Story, Sept. 22, 1832, quoted in Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Baton Rouge, 2001), 386.

In Philadelphia, as the Liberty Bell tolled for Marshall’s death, it cracked. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 439. For the superstitious, this did not augur well.

President Andrew Jackson nominated former attorney general Roger Taney (pronounced “Tawney”) to take Marshall’s seat. Taney, “hollow-chested and stooped, contrasted physically with the bluff outdoorsman image his predecessor maintained even in old age.” Id. at 441.

Philosophically, Taney shared views similar to those of President Jackson, particularly the embracing of popular sovereignty and a small role for the federal government. See id. One of Taney’s early opinions as attorney general shed light on his legal mind. The case involved South Carolina’s law authorizing imprisonment of any “free Negro sailors who came ashore while their ships were in port.” Id. at 442. Taney wrote as follows:

“The African race in the United States even when free, are every where a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy, are accorded to them as a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than of right. . . . And where they are nominally admitted by law to the privileges of citizenship, they have no effectual power to defend them, and are permitted to be citizens by the sufferance of the white population and hold whatever rights they enjoy at their mercy. They were never regarded as a constituent portion of the sovereignty of any state. . . . They were not looked upon as citizens by the contracting parties who formed the Constitution.” Roger Taney to (Secretary of State) Edward Livingston, May 28, 1832, ms. quoted in Carl Swisher, Roger B. Taney (New York, 1935), 154.

Taney, 25 years later, would write the opinion for the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott case, using similar logic. Taney was “determined that neither national majorities nor black people themselves should ever infringe on the absolute power of masters or the sovereign supremacy of the white race.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 442 citing Swisher, Taney, 154-59.

President Jackson would have been pleased had he lived to see the full effects of his appointment of Taney to the bench. Taney blended “state sovereignty, white racism, sympathy with commerce, and concern for social order” in a way that fit neatly within the Jacksonian democracy that had come to define the era in many ways. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 445.

In total, President Jackson made seven appointments to the Supreme Court, two in his first term, and five in the waning days of his second term. Part of this was due to the Democrat-controlled Congress expanding the Supreme Court from seven to nine seats.

President Jackson, who had come to be a dominating figure in American politics, and had many of his disciples in Congress already, came to exert his influence on the Supreme Court as well. He had created consensus in the American political system, and that consensus was formed around his brand of politics. The Supreme Court, led by Taney, would ensure his agenda was approved, as the Democrat-controlled Congress already was effectuating that agenda.

In this way, President Jackson was a transformative figure. He had created an aura around his politics that must have seemed impenetrable to his opponents. Perhaps this is one of the flaws of the American political system, as the three branches of government can be commandeered by a truly gifted politician who creates a movement in politics. Although it has not happened many times in American history, President Jackson certainly belongs at the top of the list of effective politicians who shaped the Supreme Court and the American government to execute their agenda.

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