Roger Taney was born in Calvert County, Maryland, into a tobacco plantation family that owned numerous slaves. As the second son, he was not destined to inherit the property, so he prepared himself for the law. He received his higher education at Dickinson College, from which he graduated in 1795. In 1799, Taney was admitted to the bar and was elected to the Maryland legislature for a two-year term. He emerged as a leader of the Federalists, although he broke with some of his colleagues when he supported the War of 1812. Following the conflict, he served multiple terms in the state senate beginning in 1816 while building a successful law practice.
In 1824, Taney switched his political allegiance to support the candidacy of Andrew Jackson. He became the state attorney general of Maryland in 1827 and later, in 1831, he was appointed U.S. attorney general. He received a recess appointment as secretary of the treasury when two of Jackson’s appointees refused to cooperate with the president’s plan to withdraw funds from the Bank of the United States. Taney complied with Jackson’s wishes, but was punished by the Senate, which refused to ratify his nomination at Treasury and later as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
Following the death of John Marshall, Taney managed to win confirmation as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1836. Major decisions during his lengthy tenure included Charles River Bridge Company vs. Warren Bridge (1837), the Dred Scott decision (1857) and Merryman, ex parte (1861).
In Ableman v. Booth in 1859, Taney explained his view of state and federal powers. Sherman Booth had been sentenced by a Federal court for the crime of assisting in the rescue of a fugitive slave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The state Supreme Court had released him on a writ of habeas corpus, because in the court's opinion the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional. When the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, the unanimous decision was that the Fugitive Slave Act was constitutional and that state courts could not interfere with Federal prisoners by means of habeas corpus. When he died, he was the object of scorn and ridicule, as seen in statements such as that of Senator Charles Sumner that his name would be "hooted down the pages of history." In fact, he was a jurist of great ability who opposed the trend of his time, which was towards the moneyed and commercial classes over the local and propertied. In the end, the decision he rendered in the Dred Scott case will probably overshadow his otherwise significant achievements.