Baltimore Under Mob Rule

To the Editor:
Once this City had a newspaperman, H. L. Mencken, who deemed it his duty to quench public passions, not to feed them, and who fought the Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition Amendment, lynching, and the Red Scare. Today it has editors who in at least six disgraceful editorials
and without any fair discussion of its background and history, demanded removal of the Taney monument in defiance of the applicable historical preservation procedures, a scheduled CHAP hearing having been cancelled. The Mayor has yielded to the new forms of political dialogue, twitters and flash mobs.

The Dred Scott opinion, with its inflammatory summary of black rights in 1787 when the Constitution still permitted the importation of slaves, was founded on Taney’s misguided belief, shared by too many later Justices, that a decisive opinion on contested social issues would keep the peace. Taney had manumitted his own slaves, and after Dred Scott declared that they “had shown by their conduct that they were worthy of freedom and knew how to use it.” The Sun has told its readers something about the Taney opinion but nothing about Justice Taney’s opinion in Ex Parte Merryman in 1861 holding that only Congress could suspend the writ of habeas corpus and that arbitrary arrests on direction of the President were forbidden by the Constitution. Baltimore’s then Mayor, George William Brown, in later opposing a retirement age for judges in 1867, declared “It was the sublimest sight of his life when he saw Judge Taney when over the age of eighty years he made the decision in the Merryman case sustaining the writ of habeas corpus in the midst of armed men and then sending to the President and telling him to perform his oath.” An article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Supreme Court Historical Society shows that Taney was indeed in serious danger of arrest when he delivered his opinion.

It was commemorated in ceremonies and publications involving several of Baltimore’s federal judges in 1961 upon its centenary, and again in 2011, upon its tercentenary

The monument, a fine sculpture, should be preserved at the Maryland Historical Society. Upon its plinth, which still stands, should be erected a plaque bearing Taney’s words in the Merryman opinion:

“If the authority which the Constitution has confided to the judiciary department and judicial officers may upon any pretext or under any circumstances be usurped by the military power at its discretion, the people of the United States are no longer living under a government of laws, but every citizen holds life, liberty and property at the will and pleasure of the army officer in whose military district he may happen to be found.”


Posted in: Culture Wars, Judiciary and Legal Issues, Miscellaneous, State and Local Politics, Urban Affairs

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