The Rise of LeCount Street and the Fall of Taney

The City in 1857. Bachmann, John, John Weik, and P.S. Duval & Son. Bird’s eye view of Philadelphia. [Philadelphia John Weik, 1857] Map.

The Rise of LeCount Street and the Fall of Taney (by Leo Vaccaro)

Part I: Why do we currently have a street named Taney in Philadelphia?

The Free Library’s amazing collection of relevant Ordinances, Council Minutes, and street name compilations

Learning that Minor Street was renamed as Taney street in 1858 invites us to try to understand that time and those people who were responsible for this alteration.  Using archival materials, historical recollections, and nineteenth century newspaper reports – judged by the standards of our own era these Philadelphians can appear both colorfully quaint, even silly, and also stunningly complex, even mysterious.  From my perspective, there is something colorful and wacky about this story even if it takes place within a larger context of terrible ignorance, poorly executed polity, and the looming cataclysmic conflict of the American Civil War.  Moreover the act of researching names is important: as Robert I. Alotta – a historian who wrote two books documenting the history of Philadelphia street names – said to “know why a particular stretch of land was called thus-and-such is to know something about life – and society – at a particular moment in history.” 

In this essay, I will report what I found in archival materials that described the people who honored Roger B. Taney with a street in our city, and how many of that group eventually changed their minds about Taney.  These were mayors, engineers, and political elites who built up a Democratic party within the city, and had helped deliver the Presidency to fellow (and to others, a rival) Democrat James Buchanan in 1856.  As the country split apart, so did their fragile party.  Pervasive through their actions and rhetoric was an rampant belief in white supremacy, nevertheless by the end of the decade many city leaders could no longer stomach the expansion of slavery.  This issue led many powerful Philadelphians to embrace Abraham Lincoln’s party.  In my next essay, I will feature the community organizers who were their African American contemporaries, who were likewise leveraging political power, enhancing powerful churches, and building up the 7th ward in particular.  It is that group that produced (and was in turn educated by) Caroline LeCount – one of the greatest Philadelphians in our history.

Even if you are well read and educated in American history, unless you look closely at the sources from the time itself and study them closely, it is impossible to appropriately theorize what people were thinking in Philadelphia in 1858.  That is a truism, but it is worth taking time to reflect on its ramifications.  It also is necessary since – and as Robert Alotta knew all too well – our city “has never maintained a record of why particular thoroughfares were given the names they bear.  Perhaps no one ever thought of this as a function of government.”  Since we live well beyond the hopes and fears of the men and women of that year 1858, it and they can appear quite foreign to our understanding.  After trips to a couple of archives, as well as hours spent reading newspaper reports and contemporary city council notes, I am going to try my best to describe the city that named a street after Roger Brooke Taney.

Most important for the consideration of this essay is that not all people and events that are famous from that time period are famous to us now and other people who are esoteric to us now were household names of the antebellum period.  Of course an example of a man who was very well known in 1858 would have been Roger Brooke Taney, then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who had earlier earned national laurels from some and infamy from others as a bank-killing henchman of President Andew Jackson.  In the year 1858 newspapers, speeches, and most famously the Lincoln-Douglas debates referenced Taney by name and deed.  Those Illinois debates were read in papers across the country, and senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln used that opportunity to emphasize the terrifying reality of the Dred Scott decision.  Lincoln argued that Taney had come to a haunting legal conclusion, in his attempt to unite the country as not ‘half free and half slave’ he effectively ruled that the whole country would be a slave holding republic from coast to coast and regardless of the ‘compromises’ of 1820 and 1850.  Lincoln warned that ‘free’ states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania would be powerless to stop the spread of slavery into their own borders because of Justice Taney’s ruling.  

One needs to look no further than a search of the free Chronicling America database to find hundreds of newspaper references to Roger B. Taney from that year alone.   But even well before then, Roger Taney’s fame and cultural influence had already been clear as he received some honorifics including a Coast Guard Revenue Cutter (launched in 1833) and a Missouri county in 1837, both named after him.  

Sketch of Roger Taney from the Philadelphia Times, 8 November 1891

With that being said, Roger Taney had some connections to the city of Philadelphia although these connections were not particularly significant.  He was famously Maryland’s native son (and his family already had a town named after them – Taneytown, Maryland).  Because Roger Taney was the recess-appointment Treasury secretary who served Jackson in the war on the Second Bank of the United States – and since that bank was headquartered on Chestnut street – he had some noteworthy business in the city in the 1830’s. Moreover, Roger Brooke Taney sired six daughters (and one son who did not survive childhood), and one of his grandchildren (Alice Etting) married a prominent Philadelphian and is buried in Laurel Hill cemetery.  But with that being said, no one of prominence lived in mid-to-late nineteenth century Philadelphia with the surname “Taney.”  Naming something “Taney” in 1858 would have been an obvious reference to the Chief Justice and no one else.

When introducing the world of Philadelphia in the 1850’s, it is difficult to overstate the ubiquitous pandemonium: riots, gangs, disasters, epidemics, and turbulent politics marred the city in the preceding decade and carried on until the national violence of the civil war engrossed Philadelphians.  Sandwiched neatly between those two decades was an incredible and unprecedented project to unite the city in the hopes that it would rise up again as the “superior on the continent” as a place “converted into a young giant [that] … would never be satisfied until the fire horse upon the roads branching from the city had drank the waters of the pacific” or until “she had attained her true position as the greatest city in the Union.”

Riots in Philadelphia

In order to further emphasize the context of the time and to underline the sorts of names that would have been well known in 1858, let us examine how people imagined Philadelphia at that time.  When it comes to naming and commemoration, fiction can be just as if not more important than reality.  More Americans read the then-famous but now lesser-known works of the penny press author and gothic novelist George Lippard than Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe.  Lippard’s most significant muse was the city of Philadelphia and Lippard’s Philadelphia (as seen in his blockbuster 1845 novel the “Quaker City,” or his later crime novella “the Killers”) was lawless, evil, lurid, unscrupulous, and corrupting.  But it was also the same territory that Washington fought over, the same city in which Jefferson had declared “all men are created equal,” it was the rapidly expanding “green country town” of Penn’s noble experiment. It was the aspirational setting for many incidents of our American Revolutionary struggle a few generations earlier, and Americans of the 1850’s were aware of their corresponding cultural privileges.  

John Forney and James Buchanan eventually split but once were Pennsylvania Democrats in the 1850’s

In 1858 Philadelphia landmarks held a special place in the hearts of all Americans, this feeling was capitalized upon by city leaders who invited dignitaries and presidential hopefuls (even state funerals) to that most sacred location – the “Old State House” now called “Independence Hall.”  But what is now administered by the National Park Service was still then a bustling center of civic government, and the local municipal politicians held the keys.  Once incident in regards to that peculiar arrangement occurred in 1856 when there was a conflict over whether or not Pennsylvanian and then-presidential hopeful James Buchanan would be permitted to appear on those hallowed grounds, “Mr. Buchanan’s friends were anxious that he should have the … privilege and honor [to have a reception at Independence Hall], but the political opposition was dominant in Common Council, and it tartly refused the request.”  Although it is true that there were a number of Whig mayors in Philadelphia, and that they put up enough of a fight to keep Buchanan out of Independence Hall, this story should remind us that all national politics at that time were dominated by one political party and its internal factions – the Democratic party that decimated the Federalists in the aftermath of the War of 1812 and was challenged only by the unlikely bedfellows of the few successful opposition Whig candidates (who, in comparison, produced only two successful national tickets before collapsing).

Locally, an effort was made to both “deal with the epidemics of riot and disease that ravaged the city” and gain “the power and dignity to challenge for metropolitan supremacy” when the City of Brotherly Love “Consolidated” the whole county of Philadelphia under one municipal government in 1854.  Historian Russell Weigley declared that a “principal motive of the Consolidation Act was to try to make the booming city governable.”  Even if this event is sort of famous among history buffs in our region, I must assume that many people fail to understand that this “consolidation” only occurred after intense community organizing, that it completely transformed the civil authorities of the city, and that it was bitterly fought over – as was remembered thirty years after the fact, the “question [of consolidation]  worked  itself  into  local politics  in  a  manner  quite  unpleasant  to  the  feelings of  partisan.”  I guess it ought not to be much of a surprise that elected officials are wary of changing the system that placed them into office in the first place – it was alleged at a pro-consolidation meeting reported on the Public Ledger on 26 March 1852 that an unconsolidated Philadelphia county had 177 tax collectors “every one of whom receives more than the Governor …”  As soon as the independent townships realized that the whole county would fall under one new civil government, the various soon-to-be-extinct government entities were  “encourage[d]” to engage in “a  wild  saturnalia  of  running  in  debt.”  

To celebrate the occasion of becoming one city, the Governor, city elites, and the Board of Trade took a celebratory Delaware river cruise on a steamship so as to see the new city’s full boundaries.  A band played as the ship waved flags on the journey up river, and a resident of what was previously the municipality of Torresdale placed a giant flag onto his roof so as to signal to Governor Bigler and his entourage the “northernmost limit” of the new fully incorporated City of Philadelphia.  Through all the speeches and cheers, encouragement and optimism, there still remained an obvious problem.  A county that once had 8 incorporated districts, 6 boroughs, and 13 townships was now one city.  The patchwork and balkanized policing, fire protection, schooling, water department, and administration was now to be organized and united under one authority.  And most pertinent to our story, there was a mess of various street addresses, street names, and a panoply of various transportation methods including ferries, omnibuses, rail lines, trolleys.

Not everyone in Pennsylvania seemed very happy about the Consolidation and its celebration, such as these Gettysburgians:

Clipped from the Gettysburg Compiler, 20 Mar 1854, page 4

The new municipal government included a mayor and a bicameral council (with “Common” and “Select” chambers).  These councils eventually passed legislation, signed in September 1856 by Democrat Mayor Richard Vaux, overhauling the address numbering system to its current form, bringing order to a chaotic mess wherein “no break was made at cross streets” and when new buildings had been built, the whole block would have be renumbered (including half-numbers!)

This council (at some point) created a “Special Committee upon the revision of Street Nomenclature.”  Evidence suggests that this committee was the group most responsible for selecting the new street names and basically making the map of the united city fit together.  Sometime presumably after 1854 and before the following article was published in 1857, this “Special committee” was created in order to put together street names:

Philadelphia’s Public Ledger, 5 Oct 1857

Looking at the “Ordinances and Joint Resolutions of the Select and Common Councils of the Consolidated City of Philadelphia” from 1858 and printed by Bicking & Guilbert one would see that it is 528 pages long (not counting the index).  The ordinance “To change the names of certain Streets, Lanes, Courts Alleys, Soc., in the City of Philadelphia” which enumerated new street names, united the names of existing boulevards across extinct townships, and erased old neighborhood titles of various avenues appeared at page 257 and stopped listing new street names on page 321.  Thus there were more than 60 pages of street name changes in 1858 – more than ten percent of all the verbage spent on ordinance legislation in 1858 was spent on street name changes.  These name changes were printed up and bound into a separate book and handed over to the Department of Surveys – still held in the City Archives – and some handwritten pencil notes inside this volume suggest that the surveyors implemented these name changes with a moderate degree of punctiliousness.

This is the bound copy of street name changes held in the Philadelphia City Archives.

Strickland Kneass had been appointed the city’s chief engineer and surveyor, and was reelected 3 times, building bridges across the Schuylkill River, sewers, and even surveyed parts of Pennsylvania to defend against Robert E. Lee’s 1863 invasion.  He was also in charge of the extension of the street car system and seemed to be the man most responsible for implementing these street name changes.

It is both prodigious and ridiculous how many streets were changed in that year by this ordinance: with approximately 15 to a page, this ordinance appears to have changed and adjusted almost one thousand streets, alleys, lanes, and courts (according to my count of the name changes reported on the opening pages of the McElroy’s city directory there were 971 changes).  Out of all of those changes – on page 294 of the printed ordinance book – it was ordained “Minor street, north from Coates street, near Fairmount street,” was “hereafter to be called Taney street.”  So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one small street change in Fairmount was not front page news at the time!

Let’s take a look a the names of the men who actually signed the ordinance: Common Council President Charles B. Trego, Select Council President G. M. Wharton, Mayor Alexander Henry and the Clerk H. G. Leisenring.

Trego was a prominent teacher, Penn professor, and as a politician through much of his career he was a Whig but he tried to secure the Republican mayoral nomination in 1862.  Interestingly, he was also an active member of the American Philosophical Society.  As a “scientist” and historian he published a geography and history of Pennsylvania in 1843.  This book illustrated that Trego was not immune to the racial ignorance of his class: Trego lamented that William Penn could not find peace and quiet due to “Indians, and the question of Negro slavery,” referenced American Indians as the perpetrators of “treachery and cruelty of savage warfare.”

George Wharton from a University of Pennsylvania history

Lawyer, Penn trustee, and patrician George Mifflin Wharton was a “warm personal and social as well as a political friend of Mr. Buchanan” and later was appointed by Buchanan as a U.S. Attorney.  When Lincoln became president G. W. Wharton, “did what he could to antagonize Lincoln’s administration” and this adversarial position “led to the severance of many of his earlier associations” within the city.  To cite a specific point of disagreement, Wharton disagreed with Lincoln’s “suspension” of habeas corpus, which is also what Roger Taney did in Ex Parte Merryman.

Portrait of Mayor Alexander Henry from the Free Library of Philadelphia

It was surprising to see Alexander Henry’s name on this legislation, a seemingly unlikely source of any sort of reverence for Roger Taney’s ilk.  On 21 February 1861, Henry famously led a demonstration to the Continental Hotel to hear Lincoln speak, as the president-elect was on his journey to inauguration; and Henry is famous as the first Republican mayor of Philadelphia.  A closer look at the historical record and Henry’s statements at the time ought to remind us that even Henry was a likely supporter of the Taney Court’s infamous slavery decision.  At a gigantic rally with apparently 50,000 Philadelpians assembled at Independence Hall in December 1860 – during the South Carolina secession crisis – Mayor Henry introduced John B. Myers with a speech, who in turn suggested a series of resolutions, most notably one “as to the question of slaves as property, and as to the question of the rights of slave-owners in the territories of the United States, the people of Philadelphia submit themselves obediently and cheerfully to the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States ….”  Both Trego and Henry were part of this effort to concede to Southern slave holders with an obvious referenence to the Dred Scott Decision.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Richard Vaux. (Recorder and mayor of Philadelphia, and writer on many subjects.)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 12, 2022.

Rename Taney has previously claimed that Mayor Richard Vaux is the mayor most responsible for renaming Minor street, and this would make more sense ideologically – that a nineteenth century Democrat would have honored Taney.  Although Vaux was not the mayor who signed the legislation, he would likely have been the mayor who had a hand in the nomenclature committee, having served in office from May 1846 to May 1858 (it was a two-year term in those days).

An 1851 cartoon poking some fun at Richard Vaux.

The choice of “Taney” as a name was not celebrated publicly in the city, but he was far from being an obscure political name and his name was a very far from being the most obscure political figure to be honored in those name changes: it appears as though the Select Council Clerk H.G. Leisenring had a street named “Leisenring” in that very same piece of legislation.  

Leisenring was the sort of Democratic politician who warned against emancipation in the Civil War, he argued in the Pennsylvania legislature that freeing the slaves would mean that “millions of ignorant black slaves, governed almost exclusively by their passions, are let loose to roam over this fair land of ours and drench it in blood.”  Some Philadelphia merchants were so pleased with his speech that they asked him to have copies of it printed up.  I’m quoting his despicable speech directly because it encapsulates the belief in white supremacy that was at the heart of that political milieu – the group that changed Minor street to Taney street. After the war he went on the traditional path that a political hack takes: he became a snake oil salesman, hawking a ‘celebrated bitter cordial’ to cure the quintessential Victorian aliment – ‘dyspepsia’ (which could mean really any stomach issue, and with food and water often being contaminated in those days, these universal stomach pains came from diverse causes).  Curiously, Leisenring disappeared after over-investing in an elaborate life-sized wax figure attraction of the Founding Fathers during the 1876 Centennial.  This exhibit appeared to have ruined his finances so badly that he ran away without telling anyone in Philadelphia and resettled in El Paso.  It is worth noting his street name went with him – there is no longer a Leisenring street in Philadelphia, it is now “Summer” street.  It is not known when that name change took place, but I like to think that it was because many were bitter.

These images are from Ferdinand Meyer’s research on “Snyder’s Celebrated Bitter Cordial and H. G. Leisenring” posted on 1 December 2013 

Soon after naming Taney street after Roger Taney, Philadelphians were divided about his legacy.  The civil war of course played a big role in this.  In 1874 the Inquirer thought that Taney was still worthy of praise:

But nevertheless a great many Philadelphians soured in their opinion of the Chief Justice, as can be seen in this article from The Philadelphia Times, from 26 August 1896.

It is true that many prominent and white Americans such as Andrew White Dickenson were known for their opposition to Taney.  When Taney died towards the end of the Civil War, Dickenson scathingly eulogized the Chief Justice “the unjust judge” and noted the irony that “The final hour came to Slavery and himself simultaneously. His dying finger could ‘point without a blush to the language held in the Declaration of Independence;’ for the same twelfth day of October that relieved Maryland from Slavery, delivered both Maryland and the world from Roger B. Taney.”  

Likewise, by the dawn of the twentieth century the Philadelphia electorate had largely soured on the Democratic Party and their policies (there were almost exclusively Republican mayors of Philadelphia between 1858 and 1952, and many of them won by wide margins).

Richard Vaux joked that he was the last Philadelphia Democrat standing, The Philadelphia Times, 6 Sep 1894, pg. 4.

It was not just some rich and powerful white Americans nor only portions of the voters who acknowledged that Roger Taney and his political perspective were not worthy of honor.  In Philadelphia a tight-knit, mobilized, God-fearing, and active African American population was well aware of what the Civil War meant and the hopes and aspirations of their own community.  This group founded the first HBCU in America, generations earlier they had already founded the first Back American Christian church, and later opened others.  And Caroline LeCount was one of the most important members of this population, a chronological contemporary of Roger Taney, but a person who lived in an entirely superior social and moral universe.  This remarkable civil rights leader and educator – as well as the milieu of great Americans that she came from – is the subject of my next essay.