Editor’s Note: Michele Goodwin—host of Ms. podcast “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin”—wrote this open letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 16. In it, she argues for the removal of the bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, an outspoken proponent of slavery and vocal Confederate sympathizer whose rulings declared that Black people would never be worthy of freedom or citizens of the United States.
Goodwin urges his bust be replaced with one of Thurgood Marshall, “whose astute advocacy and principled jurisprudence not only aided in dismantling the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, but also advanced women’s rights and equality.”
On July 22, the House passed legislation to remove all Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol—including Taney’s.
In early June, the Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, called on Congressional leadership to shed its halls of statues bearing likenesses to and honoring Confederates.
The eleven Confederates flank the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection, looming large and imposing. By their very presence in the collection, the Confederate statues signify the nation’s high regard and admiration. This is our government’s message to all the children, parents, teachers and visitors from near and far who visit the Capitol buildings.
The 1864 act of Congress that established this collection describes the people to be honored as, “illustrious for their historic renown or distinguished civic of military service.” Most of the Confederates represented among the collection were Democrats whose tastes for slavery never dissipated even after the Civil War. Within decades of the Civil War, the parties would cross lines; those who were once Democrats would become Republicans.
Make no mistake: The Confederate statues are commanding, not hidden, nor erected off main corridors or tucked away in a room that explains the banality of horrors leading to the Civil War or the barbarism that defined Antebellum American slavery. No plaque explains that these Confederates supported policies that denigrated men, merchandized women and commercialized children.
These men were, at the end of the day, human traffickers whose reliance on forced child labor—among other cruelties—fueled their wealth.
By stark and quite revealing contrast, there are only two statues commemorating Black people. Search high and low, in the entire Capitol complex, that’s it: Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks—both statutes commissioned less than a decade ago.
Even if one were to count the two busts of Black people—one honoring Dr. King and another memorializing Sojourner Truth—statues of white supremacists at the Capitol dramatically outnumber those of Black people by nearly three to one.
Arguably, this glaring disparity and commemoration of Confederates expresses an unambiguous message about what resides at the heart of our democracy. Let’s be clear the Confederates at the Capitol are not there as a collective history lesson. If they are, Congress has failed in its lesson plan.
Like the hidden scars and closeting of domestic violence, here too, no acknowledgement that the prosperity and ideology emanating from the Confederacy derived from forcing enslaved Black people to toil in the most arduous conditions under threats of whippings, overseers and violence of slave patrols.
“Among these 11 are Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, president and vice president of the Confederate States of America, respectively, both of whom were charged with treason against the United States.”
She further notes, that in Stephens’s infamous 1861 ‘corner-stone speech,’ he declared,
“The assumption of the equality of the races [is] in error.” Stephens extolled, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Some have argued that the Confederates should remain because the 1864 law grants each state the remembrance of two deceased citizens, or that the Confederates pay homage to heritage. The latter argument suggests that the culture of child abuse and human trafficking represent the type of legacy befitting honor in the Capitol complex.
Simply put, these arguments mire in sophistry and fall short—because the 1864 law that establishes the National Statutory Hall Collection states that the statues should be worthy of “national commemoration.”
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
Yet, for me, as a constitutional law scholar, the most troubling of the busts and statues at the Capitol is that of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
The bust honors the judge whose opinion in the landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case teemed with racial animus, legalized white supremacy, and further instantiated into law a violent disregard for Black life.
The 1857 case gave extended legal protections to slavers, and held that the principles of freedom found in the U.S. Constitution did not extend to and never would include Black people. Most legal scholars regard Taney’s opinion as one of the most shameful Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history.
Taney wrote that Blacks were “of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” He opined that Blacks were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” According to him, “the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
According to Chief Justice Taney, Black people were “ordinary articles of merchandise to every country.” He canvassed various racist laws to buttress the notion that Blacks should forever remain enslaved—citing anti-miscegenation laws in Maryland, a law in Massachusetts that provided for Blacks being “severely whipped, at the discretion of the justices” and so forth.
Black people, according to Chief Justice Taney, were an “unhappy race” that constituted “a separate class of persons.”
For Taney, states that abolished or did not practice slavery did so because “the negro race was found to be unsuited to the climate.” Thus, the weather—and not the immorality or repugnant nature of slavery—was a prevailing factor.
Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was a beneficiary of the slave economy, born into a family that bartered, traded and sold men, women and children. He sympathized with the Confederates—but refused to step down from the Court, even as the nation entered into a civil war.
Teaching about Justice Taney helps to disabuse students of the notion of pure objectivity and neutrality among judges and justices: The justices’ opinions do not always form from unaffected, resolute or unbiased reasoning.
The Dred Scott opinion—for which Taney is infamously associated—obscures other racially troubling decisions, during his tenure as Chief Justice.
For example, the Court’s 1842 Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision, where it upheld the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, resulted in the stalking and brutal capture of non-enslaved Black people living as “free” persons in northern states, including children and teenagers. Taney’s concurrence is unequivocally blunt and directly to the point; laws in northern states like Pennsylvania which sought to protect Blacks from unlawful capture were “unconstitutional and void.” According to Taney, it was the duty of northern, free states to “protect and support” slave owners in the recapture of Black people.
Surely, Chief Justice Taney was not unaware that Southern slavers profited from bogus claims of runaway slaves and benefitted from kidnapping free Black people, claiming they were their property. Justice Taney’s crucial role in the service of slavery and protection of slave “owners” should no longer symbolize our nation’s ideals if we take seriously protecting civil liberties, and safeguarding civil rights.
Madame Speaker, his bust too should go.
And, perhaps rather than simply removal, consider replacement: starting with Justice Thurgood Marshall—whose astute advocacy and principled jurisprudence not only aided in dismantling the legacies slavery and Jim Crow, but also advanced women’s rights and equality. Such a legacy seems deserving of a place in our nation’s Capitol.