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December 27, 2022

House votes to remove bust of Dred Scott decision author from Capitol

Credit: Washington Post

President Biden on Tuesday signed a bill that would remove a bust at the U.S. Capitol of Roger B. Taney, the chief justice who wrote the majority Supreme Court opinion protecting slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

The measure passed the House and Senate by voice votes this month.

It directs the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library to remove Taney’s bust no more than 45 days after the bill is signed into law. The bill would also direct the committee to replace Taney’s bust with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.

“We should honor those who advanced justice, not glorify those who stood in its way,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. “Sending this legislation to the President’s desk is a major step in our efforts to tell the stories of those Americans who have fought for a more perfect union — and remove those who have no place in the halls of Congress.”

In 1857, Taney wrote the decision in the case of Scott — a Black man born into slavery who used the courts to demand his freedom — that Black people were not U.S. citizens and could not expect protections from the federal government.

People of African descent, Taney wrote then, “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.” A Black person, Taney added, “might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Taney’s opinion, which also stated that Congress could not prohibit slavery from U.S. territories, came to be viewed as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. A bust of Taney’s likeness sits outside the Old Supreme Court Chamber on the first floor of the Capitol.

“Taney’s authorship of Dred Scott v. Sandford … renders a bust of his likeness unsuitable for the honor of display to the many visitors to the Capitol,” the text of the bill states. “ … While the removal of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s bust from the Capitol does not relieve the Congress of the historical wrongs it committed to protect the institution of slavery, it expresses Congress’s recognition of one of the most notorious wrongs to have ever taken place in one of its rooms.”

On the House floor Dec. 14, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the bill was literally about “who we put on a pedestal.”

“The United States Capitol is a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality,” Lofgren said. “It’s visited by millions of people each year. What and who we choose to honor in this building should represent our values. Chief Justice Taney, who in the infamous Dred Scott decision declared that African Americans could never be citizens of the United States and had no constitutional rights — he does not meet the standard.”

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) noted that the legislation — “to make Taney a gone-y” — had bipartisan support.

Legislation to remove Taney’s bust was first introduced by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) in March 2020. (Taney, like Hoyer and Trone, was from Maryland.) That bill passed the House that year on a 305-113 vote but did not advance in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.

Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that Taney’s interpretation of the Constitution is one that every American should reject. “The good news is not only are we replacing the Taney statue but we also provide for a bust of Chief Justice Marshall,” Hoyer said.

The vote to remove Taney’s likeness comes amid a push in recent years by Democrats to remove statues, portraits and other art in the Capitol honoring Confederate leaders and other controversial figures. The House voted last year to remove statues of Confederate leaders from the Capitol, and a statue of Taney was removed from the Maryland State House in 2017.

Upon reintroducing the bill last year, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) pointed to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, during which some supporters of President Donald Trump carried Confederate flags. At the time, the bill to remove Taney’s statue also included language that would have removed statues of Confederate leaders from the Capitol.

“There are still vestiges that remain in this sacred building that glorify people and a movement that embraced that flag and sought to divide and destroy our great country,” Clyburn said then. “This legislation will remove these commemorations from places of honor and demonstrate that as Americans we do not celebrate those who seek to divide us.”

The bill the House voted on Dec. 13 was narrower in scope and did not include removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol.

Lofgren said the next day she was disappointed the bill addressed only the Taney bust but that the House “should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

“Let’s take this opportunity to rid our Capitol of the bust of a man who does not deserve the honor and add one of a man who unquestionably does,” she said. “Now, some may argue that this action is an attempt to erase and forget our history. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must never forget our nation’s shameful periods of slavery, segregation and racism. But this is about who we choose to honor — who we choose to literally put on a pedestal and display as emblematic of our values.”

Mariana Alfaro, Eugene Scott and John Wagner contributed to this report.