Salmon P. Chase

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Salmon Portland Chase
Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: December 6, 1864 – May 7, 1873
Nominator Abraham Lincoln
Predecessor Roger B. Taney
Successor Morrison R. Waite
23rd Governor of Ohio
From: January 14, 1856 – January 9, 1860
Predecessor William Medill
Successor William Dennison Jr.
U.S. Senator from Ohio
From: March 4, 1849 – March 3, 1855; March 4–7, 1861
Predecessor William Allen; George E. Pugh
Successor George E. Pugh; John Sherman
25th United States Secretary of the Treasury
From: March 7, 1861 – June 30, 1864
President Abraham Lincoln
Predecessor John A. Dix
Successor William P. Fessenden
Party Free Soil, Liberty, Republican, Democrat
Spouse(s) Katherine Jane Garmiss
Eliza Ann Smith
Sarah Bella Dunlop Ludlow
Religion Episcopalian

Salmon Portland Chase (1808-1873) was the Sixth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America from 1864-1873, succeeding Roger B. Taney and preceding Morrison R. Waite. Despite serving on the High Court, he is more commonly known for being the Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War. He also held the office of Governor of Ohio from 1856-1860.

Early Life

Salmon Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire on January 13, 1808, the eighth of eleven children to Ithamar and Janette (Ralston) Chase. The Chase family had first immigrated to Massachusetts from the county of Cornwall in England in 1640, then moved to New Hampshire in the 18th century and became prominent in the local community. Salmon Chase's paternal uncles included a distinguished lawyer, a U.S. Senator, and a bishop in the Episcopal Church. His own father, Ithamar, was a justice of the peace and a member of the state legislature, whom the young Salmon deeply revered; however, he was financially ruined by a failed investment in a glass factory, and died in 1817.

After Ithamar's death, the Chase family was unable to make ends meet, and in 1820 Salmon, who already had shown signs of high intelligence, was sent to Ohio to study under his uncle, Philander Chase (the aforementioned Episcopalian bishop), first at a common school in Worthington and later at Cincinnati College after his uncle became president there. Chase later remembered him as a zealous but tyrannical figure, and the experience is sometimes thought to have made his own character far more rigid than it otherwise might have been.

In 1824, Chase returned to New Hampshire and briefly taught school before entering Dartmouth College, where he graduated two years later with distinction and as a member of the fraternities Alpha Delta Phi and Phi Beta Kappa. Afterwards, he moved to Washington, D.C. and began a boys' school that included among its pupils the sons of several notable politicians, including Senator Henry Clay and Attorney General William Wirt. Chase made the acquaintance of Wirt himself and was influenced to study law himself, doing so under Wirt's supervision and managing to pass the bar after only two years of study, in 1829.[1]

Legal and Political Career

Immediately after passing the bar, Chase returned to Ohio, believing that he could achieve more success as a lawyer on the western frontier than in Washington society. Establishing himself in Cincinnati, he prospered over the course of the 1830s, acting as counsel for a number of important businesses in the community and becoming one of the better-known legal figures in the area. During this time, he also produced a three-volume compilation of Ohio statutes that was an authoritative text for state law during the next several decades.[2] Additionally, he was active in community life, publishing a number of articles, joining a temperance society, and establishing a lecture circuit for the city.

During his first years in Cincinnati, Chase was not noticeably connected with the abolitionist movement that would later so strongly stamp his public life (perhaps influenced by the fact that the city, directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky, had powerful economic links with the South). In 1836, however, he intervened to stop an assault on Ohio abolitionist James G. Birney, making him a hero within the movement and leading him to more closely associate with it in turn. In 1837, he argued in defense of a runaway slave, Matilda, contending that as Ohio was a free state, any slave who crossed into it had an automatic right to freedom: and that slavery itself had no legal right to exist outside those states where it was already present. Though Chase lost the case, it further bolstered his standing in the abolitionist community, and he elaborated this argument in subsequent cases concerning fugitive slaves, most notably in the 1842 trial of John Van Zandt, a local farmer convicted of harboring runaways.

After this point, Chase began to seriously consider a political career. In 1840 he was elected to the Cincinnati City Council on the Whig ticket, but a re-election bid the following year was defeated due to his pro-temperance position. He then joined the anti-slavery Liberty Party, where he became acquainted with a number of politicians with abolitionist leanings, including Governor William Seward of New York and Edwin M. Stanton of Ohio. Chase's stance at this time was that of a moderate abolitionist, promising not to interfere with slavery in the states it already existed and seeking to build the party into a multi-issue organization to win broader appeal (anticipating in these respects the Republican Party of the 1850s); at the same time, he firmly opposed the further expansion of slavery, and argued for the overturning of Ohio's "Black Laws" that denied free blacks rights to voting and public education.[3] In 1848, Chase helped to organize a union between the Liberty Party and other antislavery organizations, known as the Free Soil Party, and presided over its first convention in Buffalo, where it nominated Martin Van Buren for President. Though Zachary Taylor and the Whigs won the presidency that year, the Free Soilers made a strong showing in the North, which Chase considered a vindication of his strategy.

A powerful antislavery bloc now existed in the Ohio legislature, and Chase used his reputation among them to successfully maneuver for his election to the U.S. Senate in 1849; for political reasons, he did so not on the Free Soil ticket but as an "independent Democrat," and even sacrificed the interests of some Free Soil associates to win support (which would subsequently damage his reputation). He served in the Senate for the next six years; maintaining his stance as a firm abolitionist, he opposed most aspects of the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, and emerged as the most prominent voice against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. With the founding of the explicitly anti-slavery Republican Party that same year, Chase joined it and decided to run for governor of Ohio rather than attempt to win a second term as Senator. His campaign was ultimately successful, making him the first Republican to become governor of a large state. On the strength of his victory, which made him one of the leading Republican officeholders in the country, Chase sought the party's nomination for President in 1856, but lost to John C. Fremont.

As Ohio governor, Chase combined a continued open opposition to slavery (he had offered to provide legal counsel in the Dred Scott case) with support for many of the other reform causes of the day--prison reform, expansion of women's rights, greater funding for public education--while departing from the Republican platform on certain issues, such as a protective tariff, which he disapproved of. This departure from Republican economic goals cost him some support within the party, and although Chase believed he was the obvious choice for the presidential nomination in 1860, the party convention in Chicago that year saw him lose by a wide margin to Abraham Lincoln, whom Chase had long disregarded as weak on the abolition issue.

Though deeply disgruntled by his failure to win the nomination, Chase campaigned on Lincoln's behalf during the 1860 presidential campaign, during which time the Ohio legislature elected him to another term in the Senate. Immediately afterward, however, Lincoln offered him the position of Secretary of the Treasury in his new cabinet, which Chase ultimately accepted.

Secretary of the Treasury

Chase was confirmed as Treasury Secretary by the Senate in March 1861, and like Lincoln and everyone else in the new cabinet, was immediately confronted with the problems raised by the secession of the Southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War. In the early days of the conflict, he assumed some duties normally belonging to the War Department (the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, proved less than equal to the task and was later replaced with Edwin Stanton), including the raising of troops in the pivotal border states. In May 1862, Chase would take a direct role in one of the Union military campaigns (an unusual act for someone in his position), accompanying General John E. Wool on a reconnaissance for the landing of troops outside Norfolk, Virginia, and successfully pressing for the operation to be carried out, which led to the capture of that city and the destruction of the Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia.

The Secretary's most important task was to raise revenue to meet the expenses of fighting the war. Following what is sometimes called a "soft-money" policy, Chase early on decided to expand the nation's money supply dramatically by issuing large quantities of banknotes, which would reduce the government's need to pay for troops and supplies with specie ("hard" money). The issuing of paper currency in the United States was by no means a novelty, but by making it a centerpiece of wartime economic policy, Chase ensured that such currency would become much more prominent in American economic transactions than it had previously been. In addition, he succeeded in having legislation passed to create a national banking system, collaborated with private financiers to sell government war bonds in an efficient manner, and commissioned Treasury agents as well as private individuals to negotiate contracts for military supplies and to confiscate captured Confederate materials (such as stores of cotton) for sale on the market, the proceeds to go to the government. The last of these activities caused some minor scandals during the war, as some of the agents Chase appointed were suspected of manipulating the system for their own profit; Chase himself was not believed to have taken part in this, however, and overall the Secretary received public praise for his management of the country's economic affairs. A New York Times article remarked that "Never before did the finances of any nation, in the midst of a great war, work so admirably as do ours."

Though Lincoln also greatly respected Chase's abilities as Treasury Secretary, there was constant friction between the two men, stemming mainly from Chase's conviction that he should have been President instead of Lincoln, and his hopes of gaining the Republican nomination for himself in the 1864 election. To this end, he consistently worked to elevate his public image (many of the new banknotes were printed with his own face on them), and tried to pack the Treasury with men who would be politically loyal to himself instead of Lincoln. Policy differences were another source of conflict; Chase allied himself with the radical faction of congressional Republicans, and aided them in efforts to force out moderates within Lincoln's cabinet (most notably Secretary of State William Seward, who had lost favor with the abolitionists). Moreover, on at least four occasions, when the two men came into direct conflict, Chase offered his resignation, partly, it seems, to soothe his own wounded pride and partly in an attempt to box Lincoln into a corner, since dismissing him might mean alienating the radicals.

The relationship between Lincoln and Chase became increasingly fraught as the war progressed. The final break came in June 1864, when Lincoln rejected Chase's nominee for the post of assistant treasurer of New York. When Chase offered his resignation for a fourth time, Lincoln (to Chase's surprise) accepted it, replacing him as Treasury Secretary with Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine.

Chief Justice

In October 1864, only a few months after Chase was dismissed as Secretary of the Treasury, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died. Though several cabinet members who had been more loyal to him personally desired the position, Lincoln ultimately decided on Chase, formally nominated on December 6 and confirmed the same day. The President's choice was made partly from esteem for the abilities the former Secretary had shown, despite their personal falling-out, partly from the hope that being Chief Justice would neutralize Chase's future political ambitions (wrongly, as it turned out). Chase was sworn in as Chief Justice on December 15; one of his first acts was to admit John Rock, a black lawyer from Massachusetts, to argue cases before the Supreme Court. This marked the first time an African-American had been admitted to the Court in such a capacity.

Chase remained Chief Justice until his death in 1873. His tenure on the Court is not as well remembered today as his membership in Lincoln's cabinet, though it coincided with many highlights of the Reconstruction period. He was among those who urged the government not to place captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis on trial for treason, warning that as secession was not classified as treason by the Constitution, Davis would win the case and call into question the legitimacy of the Union war effort. In his capacity as Chief Justice, he also presided over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the spring of 1868, though without significantly influencing the course of events.

The best known of Chase's court decisions today is probably Texas v. White (1869), which concerned bonds sold by the state of Texas during the war. In his ruling, Chase sought to cement the policies of the Lincoln administration in constitutional law by asserting that the United States was a permanent union and that a state could not unilaterally secede from it. As the ruling had the effect of justifying the wartime actions of Lincoln and his cabinet (to which Chase belonged at the time), its objectivity was questioned then and later by some.


Contrary to Lincoln's hopes, Chase did not give up thoughts of winning the Presidency upon becoming Chief Justice. Drifting back towards the Democratic Party, he sought the party's nomination for the 1868 presidential election, but ultimately lost to Horatio Seymour (who in turn would lose the election to Ulysses S. Grant). In 1872, he pursued nomination by the Liberal Republican Party, a splinter group of Republicans opposed to the continuation of Reconstruction, but again unsuccessfully, this time being beaten by Horace Greeley.

Chase's health declined from the late 1860s onward. He suffered a stroke in 1870, after which he confessed to a friend that he felt "too much of an invalid to be more than a cipher." He died of another stroke in New York City on May 7, 1873. His remains were buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., then relocated to Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati in 1886.


Like many of the leading men of his era, Chase had a strong but complex personality; in both his strengths and his weaknesses, he was highly reminiscent (if not an archetype) of the characteristic New England Puritan. Firmly committed to his own sense of morality, he was often dignified and eloquent in its defense, and occasionally showed great personal courage as well; a trait on display when, as a young man, he faced down the anti-Birney mob in Cincinnati. He also distinguished himself by a far more egalitarian view on matters of race relations than was common at the time, being not only heavily involved with the abolitionist movement but (unlike many abolitionists) pressing for the repeal of discriminatory laws within the Northern states, including his home state of Ohio. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has suggested that on this subject, Chase was considerably more high-minded than Lincoln.[4]

On the other hand, even Chase's closest friends and supporters agreed that he was almost consumed by ambition, and could be proud to the point of arrogance. This was perhaps heightened by his career as an abolitionist, in that it convinced him that whatever benefited him personally also benefited the moral crusade to which he had yoked himself. This attitude occasionally led him to make ethically questionable decisions, such as sacrificing former political associates among the Free Soilers to gain higher office, and using his post as Treasury Secretary to build his own network of patronage. It could also cause him to make poor tactical decisions; in 1856 and again in 1860, it was believed by many in the Republican Party that Chase could have won the nomination if he had exerted himself more, but he seemed to expect the party delegates to "vote their conscience" and support him as the only moral and logical choice, and as a result was outmaneuvered by others. It was for this reason, too, that he repeatedly underestimated Lincoln as a political rival, and acted in such an insubordinate manner as a Cabinet member. Lincoln provided the final word on their official relationship following his nomination of Chase as Chief Justice, saying privately that while he had no doubts of the man's ability to perform honest and capable public service, or that he was the best existing choice, he nonetheless "would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase."

A deeply pious man, Chase was a lifelong member of the Episcopalian Church and led his household in prayers and the reading of Scripture every morning when possible. One of his goals as Treasury Secretary was to have the phrase "In God We Trust" placed on United States coins, which he accomplished shortly before leaving office in 1864.[5]


Chase was married three times; first to Katherine "Kitty" Garniss, who died in 1835 from complications of childbirth; second to Eliza Ann Smith, a friend of his first wife, who died in 1845 of tuberculosis; and finally to Sarah Belle Ludlow, who died in 1852. Deeply grieved by the loss of three wives before reaching middle age, Chase never remarried.

Chase had five children by his three marriages, of whom two survived to adulthood: Katherine Jane "Kate" Chase (1840-1899), by his second wife Eliza, and Janette "Nettie" Chase (1847-1925), by his third wife Sarah. Kate, who as a young lady was widely admired for her intelligence, beauty, and social skills, was as ambitious to win her father the presidency as he himself was, and acted for him as a surrogate wife and political adviser; had Chase reached the White House, she certainly would have filled the role of First Lady. In 1863 she married Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island, but the marriage was stormy and ultimately ended in divorce. Nettie, who was less interested in politics, married William Hoyt, from a New York merchant family, in 1871, and later distinguished herself as an illustrator of children's books.


Upon his death, Chase was honored for what then-Attorney General George Henry Williams called his "early, continued and effectual labours for the universal freedom of man." The Supreme Court's tradition of draping a newly-deceased Justice's seat with black crêpe began with his passing.

Chase was also remembered among the mercantile community for his banking legislation during the Civil War. Chase National Bank, founded in 1877 and one of the institutions merged into the modern JPMorgan Chase Bank, was named in his honor (though he otherwise had no connection with it).

Locations named for Chase include Chase County in Kansas and Chase City in Virginia. His birthplace in Cornish, New Hampshire, has been a National Historic Landmark since 1975.

Chase's image appeared on the U.S. $10,000 bill from 1928 to 1946, after which it ceased active circulation.


  1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster (2005), p. 34-40.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica (1878), 9th Edition, Volume V. "Salmon Portland Chase," p. 435.
  3. Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 110-15.
  4. Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 205.