LaFayette Square — No Murder, Just Scandal


As with all of the tours we create, we find layer upon layer of stories that are just too numerous to include in a tour. We already push the time envelope on many of our tours but believe me, we DO practice some level of restraint! So let’s continue our look at the LaFayette Square area and uncover another of the controversial stories associated with the residents of this exclusive neighborhood.

In the last blog, we mentioned that Philip Barton Key, besides being the son of Francis Scott Key, was the nephew of Roger B Taney. That would be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney. Taney was married to Anne Charlton Key, the sister of Francis Scott Key. Taney and Key had another tie, though. They were classmates in law school. Francis Scott Key would go on to serve as a US District Attorney, arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Taney would do Key one better – he was appointed the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Roger Brooke Taney
Chief Justice
Roger Brooke Taney
Courtesy Library of Congress

Both Taney and Key grew up in slave-holding families. Their law careers would find them representing slavery issues. Key himself was a founder and a principal advocate of the American Colonization Society – a group that championed the notion that slaves could and should be “repatriated” back to their home in Africa. Problem with that was multi-fold: Where was “home?” How do you round up these “expatriots?” and — WHO should be repatriated? At that point, the early 1800s, generations of slaves had been living in America. They were no more African than today’s Americans are British. But, nonetheless, many of the great thinkers and humanitarians of the time thought it would be best if we just sent everybody back to Africa – or some place in the Caribbean.

Because of HIS association with THE Association, Key was hired on to assist in a case, which would make its way to the Supreme Court. In a nutshell: The case involved the capture of a slave ship, the Arraganta (previously, the Columbia), off the coast of Florida. Actually, the privateer Arraganta, sailing out of Baltimore and manned by an American crew, had captured the slaver Antelope off the coast of Africa, on-loaded the human cargo, and set off for Brazil. Information on the Arraganta is sketchy but apparently it wrecked somewhere near the coast of Brazil then limped its way north, towards Florida, where it was captured by the US Revenue Cutter, Dallas. The Captain of the Dallas, thinking he had captured a pirate ship, brought Arraganta to the port of Savannah where he tried to claim her. Enter the vice-consuls of Spain and Portugal.

The Spanish and Portuguese representatives claimed the slaves as legitimate trade-goods, and as part of normal commercial enterprise, they demanded the return of their property, pointing to the treaty between United States and Spain. A treaty stating that property taken by pirates should be returned to the Spanish owners. So here we have the US thinking that they’re taking cargo from pirates only to be accused of piracy themselves. Where was I? Oh! Right. Francis Scott Key. Key is hired onto the case, which he eventually argues before the Supreme Court.

Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key
Courtesy Library of Congress

The Spanish had made their case; they had proven, by right of previous possession, that the cargo was indeed, theirs. Key argued that sure, they could possess goods – but were humans to be considered “goods?” Chief Justice John Marshall, although touched by Key’s sentiments, sided with the Spanish. They got their slaves back. Key may have lost that case, but his reputation was not damaged by the defeat. In fact, Key had many admirers. He was a man of strong faith, he was devout, high-minded, righteous – even though he headed up the Colonization Society.

We can’t paint Roger Brooke Taney, another member of the Colonization Society, by-the-way, with the same glowing color. He DOES reach the pinnacle of the legal profession, though, serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after the death of John Marshall. Of the seventeen chief justices, Marshall and Taney served the longest with John Marshall serving over 34 years and Roger B. Taney serving over 28 years.

 

Dred Scott
Dred Scott
Courtesy Library of Congress

Taney and Key were contemporaries, with a friendship dating back to the time when they studied law together under Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase. This was in the late 1700s. In 1806, Taney married Key’s sister, Ann Phoebe Charlton Key. Thirty years later Taney is named the fifth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. His long career as a jurist would be memorable for one major, highly-charged, shocking decision: The Dred Scott Decision. Like that slave ship that was returned to its “rightful” owners, the slave, Dred Scott, would be returned to his owner as well, after having mounted a defense that might have changed the course of history, had it gone in his favor. That course WOULD be changed but it would take a few hundred thousand lives and a four-year-long Civil War just to get the gears turning – grinding is maybe a better word. And America wouldn’t even see the endgame until the explosive 1960s – one hundred years later.

Taney was part of a slave-holding family from Maryland and throughout his career, was a proponent of the rights of individual states over a central government – what would become known as States’ Rights. Although Taney didn’t reach the notorious Dred Scott Decision alone, he wrote the majority opinion and his support of the opinion was certainly influenced by these two factors: his family history and his support of the rights of individual states. To confuse the picture somewhat, Taney was NOT an advocate of slavery, in fact, he had freed his slaves. But it was his strong opinion about the sovereignty of states that would influence his thinking.

The Dred Scott case lasted over ten years and raised the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the territories as the United States grew and added more living space. Scott’s case was based on the fact that he had been taken from Missouri, a slave state, into Illinois and on to Wisconsin, both areas that were considered free. Now at that time, it was pretty much accepted that if a slave was taken from a slave state to a free state, the slave would be free. Up to that time, there were many circumstances where this was the case. Scott should be considered free because he had resided in a free area of the country.

When Scott’s master, John Emerson, brought Scott back to Missouri, Scott sued. The Missouri courts, at first, agreed that Scott should be free but then reversed the decision, not wanting to be the first to the top of this slippery slope. For the next eleven years the courts would take up the question of slavery – again. The question would be answered, sort of, in 1857 when Roger B Taney handed down the decision. It was not the decision many had expected and definitely not one they had hoped for. Taney reiterated that since slaves were not citizens, Dred Scott had no standing to bring a lawsuit in any court of law. In fact, what Taney actually said was a lot more inflammatory. He stated that under the Constitution, which pertained only to the white population, a black person could not be a citizen and, therefore, had no protection under the Constitution. Many have called this the Supreme Court’s worst decision – and its darkest hour.

We’re not anywhere near done with LaFayette Square yet. In the next blog, we’ll go back to Barton Key and we’ll take a look at someone who actually tried using the “insanity defense” way before Sickles’ defense team thought to use it.

Sources:

  • “Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square,” Benjamin Ogle Tayloe
  • “The President’s Square,” Frances F Donaldson
  • “Francis Scott Key,” Francis Scott Key Smith
  • www.biography.com
  • www.ourdocuments.gov
  • pabook.libraries.psu.edu
  • news.stanford.edu
  • baltimoreauthors.ubalt.edu/writers/fscottkey.htm
  • “The Lost World of Francis Scott Key,” Sina Dubovoy
  • http://www.ourdocuments.gov

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