The Dickinson College professor was at odds with his students over the question of morality in politics.
“He had no faith in our institutions,” Roger Brooke Taney said of his mentor Dr. Charles Nisbet. “[He] did not believe … in their capacity to protect the rights of person and property against the impulses of popular passion.”
Taney was recalling his formative years in Carlisle far removed from his later duties as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was in that role that this son of a Maryland tobacco farmer wrote the March 1857 majority opinion in the Dred Scott case.
That ruling confirmed slaves as property and declared that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had no right, under the constitutional protection of private property, to bar slavery from the new territories, according to an online biography on Taney posted by the Dickinson College archives.
The Baltimore Sun reported on Aug. 18 that a work crew removed the statue of Taney from its perch outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis. It was among the monuments linked to slavery and the Confederate cause removed from a public square since white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
Born March 17, 1777, Taney grew up with rural gentry privilege in southern Maryland, the biography reads. He was educated privately before being enrolled in Dickinson College in 1792.
His father was close friends with the families of two students “who gave favorable accounts of the institution,” Taney wrote in his memoirs. He accompanied one of the students on the trip back to Pennsylvania.
“It was no small undertaking … in that day to get from the lower part of Calvert County [Maryland] to Carlisle,” Taney recalled. “We embarked onboard one of the schooners employed in transporting produce and goods between the Patuxent River and Baltimore.”
“Unfavorable” winds delayed their arrival by a week and there was no transportation available for days while they waited for a wagon heading for Carlisle. They had to worry the whole journey about robbers stealing the money they stowed in their luggage.
“None of us boarded in the college,” Taney wrote. Instead he was one of eight students who stayed with math professor James McCormick. “He was unwearied in his attentions to us in our studies, full of patience and good nature,” Taney said of McCormick.
Upon arrival in Carlisle, Taney delivered a letter from his father to Nisbet, the principal of Dickinson College. The letter asked Nisbet to assume the role of guardian over Taney who was about 15 at the time and 150 miles from home.
“He cheerfully took upon himself the duty and invited me to visit him often,” the future lawyer, politician and judge wrote. “And many pleasant evenings I have spent at his house. He did not worry or fatigue me by grave and solemn lectures and admonitions.”
Taney described his conversations with Nisbet as “cheerful and animated, full of anecdote and classical allusions and seasoned with lively and playful wit.” But Nisbet had a different side in the classroom.
“If he saw conduct that merited reproof, his sarcasm was sometimes bitter, and cut deep at the time,” Taney wrote. “But I never saw it used towards a pupil unless he deserved it.”
Nisbet taught courses in Ethics, Logic, Metaphysics and Criticism by way of lectures that were written out and read to the class slowly. Students were also required to copy down questions and answers from a compendium of each science.
While it seemed like learning by rote, Nisbet was pleased whenever a student gave an answer different from what was in the text. He would review it in class and give feedback on what was correct and incorrect about the answer.
“His object was to teach the pupil to think, to reason, to form an opinion, and not to depend merely upon memory,” Taney wrote. “He undoubtedly succeeded in fastening our attention upon the subject on which he was lecturing.”
But when it came to how ethics played a role in government, Nisbet had ideas that Taney said were “decidedly anti-Republican,” at least, for 1790s frontier America.
“These opinions were monstrous heresies in our eyes,” Taney recalled. “But we heard them with good humor, and without offending him. … We supposed they were the necessary consequence of his birth and education in Scotland.”
Some students were so vexed by the opinions they refused to jot down them. Taney was convinced the students would have openly rebelled had another professor expressed those same views.
Robert Davidson was the vice-principal of Dickinson College when Taney was a student from 1792 to 1795. “He was disliked by the students generally, and some of them took no pains to conceal it,” Taney said. “He was formal and solemn and precise.”
Davidson lectured on History, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He had written a rhyming book about the different countries and about the principal rivers, mountains and cities in each.
Students were required to purchase the book, commit the verses to memory and then parrot the lessons back to Davidson in class. This proved to be annoying to Taney and his classmates.
“It filled our minds with names of places and general descriptions, without giving us any definite idea of their position on the globe or their relation to one another,” Taney recalled. “He [Davidson] was always vain of it, and always showed his displeasure if anyone … could not repeat it readily, word for word, as he had written it.”
Perhaps the most annoying verse was the introduction to the book where Robert Davidson used the first letter of each line to spell out his name. Students had to repeat this verse over and over in class. Some 50 years later, Taney quoted all but the last four lines in his memoir. Part of it went:
“Round the globe now to rove, and its surface survey,
Oh, youth of America, hasten away;
Bid adieu for awhile to the toys you desire,
Earth’s beauties to view, and its wonders admire”
As for Taney, he became a leading member of the Belles Lettres Society and graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1795, the online biography reads. “This honor he always valued since the students themselves … were responsible for each selection.”
From Carlisle, Taney studied law in Maryland where he served as a state representative. As a lawyer in Frederick, he met and married Anne Key, the sister of Francis Scott Key, who wrote lyrics for what later became the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Taney served in the Maryland state Senate and as the state attorney general before becoming a supporter of Gen. Andrew Jackson. When Jackson became president, Taney served as attorney general, acting secretary of war and secretary of the treasury before being appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Taney died on Oct. 12, 1864.