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Salmon P. Chase


6th Chief Justice of the U.S. SUPREME COURT (1864-73)

Born April 17, 1741, in Somerset County, MD
Died June 19, 1811, in Baltimore, MD

Federal Judicial Service:
Supreme Court of the United States
Nominated by George Washington on January 26, 1796, to a seat vacated by John Blair; Confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1796, and received commission on January 27, 1796. Service terminated on June 19, 1811, due to death.

Read law, 1763

Professional Career:
Member, Maryland Assembly, 1764-1776
Member, Maryland House of Delegates, 1777-1788
Delegate, Continental Congress, 1774-1778, 1784, 1785
Judge, Baltimore County, 1788-1796
Chief judge, Maryland General Court, 1791-1796
Impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives, March 12, 1804, and found not guilty by the U.S. Senate, March 1, 1805.

Race or Ethnicity: White

Gender: Male

Manuscript sources

Source: Federal Judicial Center


Edited Appleton's American Image Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM


CHASE, Salmon Portland, statesman, born in Cornish, N. H., 13 Jan., 1808 ; died in New York City, 7 May, 1873. He was named for his uncle, Salmon, who died in Portland, and he used to say that he was his uncle's monument. He was a descendant in the ninth generation of Thomas Chase, of Chesham, England, and in the sixth of Aquila Chase, who came from England and settled in Newbury, Mass., about 1640. Sahnon Portland was the eighth of the eleven children of Ithamar Chase and his wife Jannette Ralston, who was of Scottish blood. 

He was born in the house built by his grandfather, which still stands overlooking Connecticut river and in the afternoon shadow of Ascutney mountain. Of his father's seven brothers, three were lawyers, Dudley becoming a U. S. senator ; two were physicians ; Phblander became a bishop of the Protestant Episcopal church ; and one, like his father, was a farmer. His earliest teacher was Daniel Breck, afterward a jurist in Kentucky. When the boy was eight years old his parents removed to Keene, where his mother had inherited a little property. This was invested in a glass factory; but a revision of the tariff, by which the duty on glass was lowered, ruined the business, and soon afterward the father died. Salmon was sent to school at Windsor, and made considerable progress in Latin and Greek. 

In 1820 his uncle, the bishop of Ohio, offered to take him into his family, and the boy set out in the spring, with his brother and the afterward famous Henry R. Schoolcraft, to make the journey to what was then considered the distant west. They were taken from Buffalo to Cleveland by the "WalkintheWater," the first steamboat on the great lakes. He spent three years in Worthington and Cincinnati with his uncle, who attended to his education personally till he went to England in 1823, when the boy returned home, the next year entered Dartmouth as a junior, and was graduated in 1826. He at once established a classical school for boys in Washington, D. C., which he conducted with success, at the same time studying law with William Wirt. 

Mr. Chase gave much of his leisure to light literature, and a poem that was addressed by him to Mr. Wirt's daughters was printed and is still extant. In 1830, having completed his studies, he closed the school, was admitted to the bar in Washington, and settled in Cincinnati, where he soon obtained a large practice. In polities lie did not identify himself with either of the great parties; but on one point he was clear front the first: he was unalterably opposed to slavery, and in this sentiment he was confirmed by witnessing the destruction of the "Philanthropist" office by a proslavery mob in 1836. In 1837 he defended a fugitive slave woman, claimed under the law of 1793, and took the highest ground against the constitutionality of that law. One of the oldest lawyers in the courtroom was heard to remark concerning him: "There is a promising young man who has just ruined himself." 

In 1837 Mr. Chase also defended his friend James G. Birney in a suit for harboring a Negro slave, and in 1838 he reviewed with great severity a report of the judiciary committee of the state senate, refusing trial by jury to slaves, and in a second suit defended Mr. Birney. When it became evident, after the brief administration of Harrison was over and that of Tyler begun, that no more effective opposition to the encroachments of slavery was to be expected from the Whig than from the Democratic party, a Liberty party was organized in Ohio in December, 1841, and Mr. Chase was foremost among its founders. The address, which was written by Mr. Chase, contained these passages, clearly setting forth the issues of a mighty struggle that was to continue for twenty-five years and be closed only by a bloody war: "The constitution found slavery, and left it, a state institution the creature and dependant of state law wholly local in its existence and character. It did not make it a national institution .... Why, then, fellow citizens, are we now appealing to you ? . . . Why is it that the whole nation is moved, as with a mighty wind, by the discussion of the questions involved in the great issue now made up between liberty and slavery ? It is, fellow citizens and we beg you to mark this it is because slavery has overleaped its prescribed limits and usurped the control of the national government. We ask you to acquaint yourselves fully with the details and particulars belonging" to the topics which we have briefly touched, and we do not doubt that you will concur with us in believing that the honor, the welfare, the safety of our country imperiously require the absolute and unqualified divorce of the government from slavery." Writing of this late in life Mr. Chase said : "Having resolved on my political course, I devoted all the time and means I could command to the work of spreading the principles and building up the organization of the party of constitutional freedom then inaugurated. Sometimes, indeed, all I could do seemed insignificant, while the labors I had to perform, and the demands upon my very limited resources by necessary contributions, taxed severely all my ability .... It seems to me now, on looking back, that I could not help working if I would, and that I was just as really called in the course of Providence to my labors for human freedom as ever any other laborer in the great field of the world was called to his appointed work."  

Mr. Chase acted as counsel for so many blacks who were claimed as fugitives that lie was at length called by Kentuckians the " attorney general for runaway Negroes," and the colored people of Cincinnati presented him with a silver pitcher "for his various public services in behalf of the oppressed." One of his most noted cases was the defense of John Van Zandt (the original of John Van Trompe in " Uncle Tom's Cabin ") in 1842, who was prosecuted for harboring fugitive slaves because he had overtaken a party of them on the road and given them a ride in his wagon. In the final hearing, 1846, William H. Seward was associated with Mr. Chase, neither of them receiving' any compensation.

When the Liberty party, in a national convention held in Buffalo, N. Y., in 1843, nominated James G. Birney for president, the platform was almost entirely the composition of Mr. Chase. But he vigorously opposed the resolution, offered by John Pierpont, declaring that the fugitive slave law clause of the constitution was not binding in conscience, but might be mentally excepted in any oath to support the constitution. In 1840 the Liberty party had cast but one in 360 of the entire popular vote of the country. In 1844 it cast one in forty, and caused the defeat of Mr. Clay. The free-soil convention that met in Buffalo in 1848 and nominated Martin Van Buren for president, with Charles Francis Adams for vice president, was presided over by Mr. Chase. This time the party cast one in nine of the whole number of votes. In February, 1849, the Democrats and the free-soilers in the Ohio legislature formed a coalition, one result of which was the election of Mr. Chase to the U. S. senate. Agreeing with the Democracy of Ohio, which, by resolution in convention, had declared slavery to be an evil, he supported its state policy and nominees, but declared that he would desert it if it deserted the antislavery position. In the senate, 26 and 27 March, 1850, he made a notable speech against the so called "compromise measures," which included the fugitive slave law, and offered several amendments, all of which were voted down. 

When the Democratic convention at Baltimore nominated Franklin Pierce for president in 1852, and approved of the compromise acts of 1850, Senator Chase dissolved his connection with the Democratic party in Ohio. At this time he addressed a letter to Hon. Benjamin F. Butler, of New York, suggesting and vindicating the idea of an independent democracy. He made a platform, which was substantially that adopted at the Pittsburg convention, in the same year. He continued his support to the independent democrats until the Kansas Nebraska bill came up, when he vigorously opposed the repeal of the Missouri compromise, wrote an appeal to the people against it, and made the first elaborate exposure of its character. His persistent attacks upon it in the senate thoroughly roused the north, and are admitted to have influenced in a remarkable degree the subsequent struggle. During his senatorial career Mr. Chase also advocated economy in the national finances, a Pacific railroad by the shortest and best route, the homestead law (which was intended to develop the northern territories), and cheap postage, and held that the national treasury should defray the expense of providing for safe navigation of the lakes, as well as of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio by the opponents of the Pierce administration. His inaugural address recommended single districts for legislative representation, annum instead of biennial sessions of the legislature, and an extended educational system. Soon after his inauguration occurred the Garner tragedy, so called, in which a fugitive slave mother, near Cincinnati, attempted to kill all of her children, and did kill one, to prevent them from being borne back to slave life in Kentucky. This and other slave hunts in Ohio so roused and increased the antislavery sentiment in that place that Gov. Chase was re-nominated by acclamation, and was reelected by a small majority, though the American or know-nothing party had a candidate in the field. 

In the national Republican convention, held at Chicago in 1860, the vote on the first ballot stood: Seward, 173 1/2; Lincoln, 102; Cameron, 50½; Chase, 49. On the third ballot Mr. Lincoln lacked but four of the number necessary to nominate, and these were given by Mr. Chase's friends before the result was declared. When Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated President, 4 March, 1861, he made Gov. Chase secretary of the treasury. The difficulty that he was immediately called upon to grapple with is thus described by Mr. Greeley: "When he accepted the office of secretary of the treasury the finances were already in chaos; the current revenue being inadequate, even in the absence of all expenditure or preparation for war, his predecessor (Cobb, of Georgia) having attempted to borrow $10,000,000, in October, 1860, and obtained only $7,022,000 the bidders to whom the balance was awarded choosing to forfeit their initial deposit rather than take and pay for their bonds. Thenceforth he had tided over, till his resignation, by selling treasury notes, payable a year from date, at 6 to 12 per cent. discount ; and when, after he had retired from the scene, Gen. Dix, who succeeded him in Mr. Buchanan's cabinet, attempted (February, 1861) to borrow a small sum on twenty-year bonds at 6 per cent., he was obliged to sell those bonds at an average discount of 9½ per cent. Hence, of Mr. Chase's first loan of $8,000,000, for which bids were opened (2 April ten days before Beauregard first fired on Fort Sumter, the offerings ranged from 5 to 10 per cent. discount; and only $3,099,000 were tendered at or under 6 per cent. discounthe, in the face of a vehement clamor, declining all bids at higher rates of discount than 6 per cent., and placing soon afterward the balance of t, he $8,000,000 in twoyear treasury notes at par or a fraction over." 

When the secretary went to New York for his first loan, the London Times declared that he had "coerced $50,000,000 from the banks, but would not fare so well at the London Exchange." Three years later it said " the hundredth part of Mr. Chase's embarrassments would tax Mr. Gladstone's ingenuity to the utmost, and set the [British] public mind in a ferment of excitement." In his conference with the bankers, the secretary said he hoped they would be able to take the loans on such terms as could be admitted. "If you can not," said he, "I shall go back to Washington and issue notes for circulation; for it is certain that the war must go on until the rebellion is put down, if we have to put out paper until it takes a thousand dollars to buy a breakfast." 

At this time the amount of coin in circulation in the country was estimated at $210,000,000; and it soon became evident that this was insufficient for carrying on the war. The banks could not sell the bonds for coin, and could not meet their obligations in coin, and on 27 Dec., 1861, they agreed to suspend specie payment at the close of the year. In his first report, submitted on the 9th of that month, Sec. Chase recommended retrenchment of expenses wherever possible, confiscation of the property of those in arms against the government, an increase of duties and of the tax on spirits, and a national currency, with a system of national banking associations. 

This last recommendation was carried out in the issue of "greenbacks," which were made a legal tender for everything but customs duties, and the establishment of the national banking law. His management of the finances of the government during the first three years of the great war has received nothing but the highest praise. He resigned the secretary ship on 30 June. 1864, and was succeeded a few days later by William P. Fessenden. 

On 6 Dec., 1864, President Lincoln nominated him to be chief justice of the United States, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Roger B. Taney, and the nomination was immediately confirmed by the senate. In this office he presided at the impeachment trial of President Johnson in 1868. In that year his name was frequently mentioned in connection with the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and in answer to a letter from the chairman of the democratic national committee he wrote:

"For more than a quarter of a century I have been, in my political views and sentiments, a Democrat, and I still think that upon questions of finance, commerce, and administration generally, the old Democratic principles afford the best guidance. What separated me in former times from both parties was the depth and positiveness of my convictions on the slavery question. On that question I thought the Democratic party failed to make a just application of Democratic principles, and regarded myself as more democratic than the Democrats. In 1849 I was elected to the senate by the united votes of the old-line Democrats and independent Democrats, and subsequently made earnest efforts to bring about a union of all Democrats on the ground of the limitation of slavery to the states in which it then existed, and nonintervention in these states by congress. Had that union been effected, it is my firm belief that the country would have escaped the late civil war and all its evils. I never favored interference by congress with slavery, but as a war measure Mr. Lincoln's proclamation of emancipation had my hearty assent, and I united, as a member of his administration, in the pledge made to maintain the freedom of the enfranchised people. I have been, and am, in favor of so much of the reconstruction policy of congress as based the reorganization of the state governments of the south upon universal suffrage. I think that President Johnson was right in regarding the southern states, except Virginia and Tennessee, as being, at the close of the war, without governments which the U. S. government could properly recognize without governors, judges, legislators, or other state functionaries; but wrong in limiting, by his reconstruction proclamations, the right of suffrage to whites, and only such whites as had the qualification he required. On the other hand, it seemed to me, congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to the whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens, and of all unable to take a prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of arbitrary military governments for the states, and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions, no classes excluded from suffrage, and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the constitution and laws, and sincere attachment to the constitutional government of the United States. I am glad to know that many intelligent southern Democrats agree with me in these views, and are willing to accept universal suffrage and universal amnesty as the basis of reconstruction and restoration. They see that the shortest way to revive prosperity, possible only with contented industry, is universal suffrage now, and universal amnesty, with removal of all disabilities, as speedily as possible through the action of the state and national governments. I have long been a believer in the wisdom and justice of securing the right of suffrage to all citizens by state constitutions and legislation. It is the best guarantee of the stability of institutions, and the prosperity of communities. My views on this subject were well known when the Democrats elected me to the senate in 1849. I have now answered your letter as I think I ought to answer it. I beg you to believe me for I say it in all sincerity that I do not desire the office of president, nor a nomination for it. Nor do I know that, with my views and convictions, I am a suitable candidate for any party. Of that my countrymen must judge."

Judge Chase subsequently prepared a declaration of principles, embodying the ideas of his letter, and submitted it to those Democrats who desired his nomination, as a platform in that event. But this was not adopted by the convention, and the plan to nominate him, if there was such a plan, failed. In June, 1870, he suffered an attack of paralysis, and from that time till his death he was an invalid. As in the case of President Lincoln and Sec. Stanton, his integrity was shown by the fact that, though he had been a member of the administration when the government was spending millions of dollars a day, he died comparatively poor. His remains were buried in Washington ; but in October, 1886, were removed, with appropriate ceremony, to Cincinnati, Ohio, and deposited in Spring Grove cemetery near that city. Besides his reports and decisions, Mr. Chase published a compilation of the statutes of Ohio, with annotations and an historical sketch (3 vols., Cincinnati, 1832). See "Life and Public Services of Sahnon Portland Chase," by J. W. Schuckers (New York, 1874). -- Edited Appleton's Cyclopedia American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM


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