Samuel Chase

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Founding Fathers
Samuel Chase
State Maryland
Religion Christian- Episcopalian [1]
Founding Documents Declaration of Independence

Samuel Chase (1741–1811) served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court during the Marshall Court. He was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence on behalf of Maryland. He was a leading Anti-Federalist, opposing ratification of the new Constitution in 1788 because he feared the "aristocratic danger" of the new system. A leader in Maryland politics, he joined the Federalist Party and supported President George Washington against Thomas Jefferson. Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served until his death. Jefferson tried and failed to remove him by impeachment in 1805, which backfired and weakened Jefferson while enhancing the reputation of the Supreme Court.

Maryland politics

During December 1772-April 1773, an acrimonious battle of words enlivened the pages of the Maryland Gazette when the Whiggish country-party lawyers William Paca and Samuel Chase - Maryland's equivalent of two Sam Adamses - exchanged a series of letters with rector Jonathan Boucher over the issues of the 40-pound tobacco poll tax for support of the clergy, and the movement for an American bishop symbolized by Boucher. Paca and Chase's position that the 1702 Act of Establishment creating the poll tax was invalid led Boucher to challenge their right as vestrymen of St. Anne's parish to levy taxation for church repairs, since vestrymen also were created by that very law. Instead the lawyers insisted that common law was their justification for representing their parishioners, and turned the argument into a scathing attack on churchmen, bishops, and the proprietary establishment in general. The entire imbroglio weakened the position of Maryland clerics as tensions with Britain increased after 1773, and enhanced the political prestige of Paca and Chase in the new politics of confrontation.[2]

Fighting for independence

Chase played a major role in winning Maryland to the cause of independence in 1776. Maryland's revolutionary leadership - called the "popular party" - had learned that revolution without some anarchy was impossible. By June 1776, a conservative group, including Chase, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Thomas Johnson, faced a formidable problem in holding popular support. There was widespread opposition to the state government, with full-scale insurrection on the Eastern Shore and open hostility among the militia, the non-associators and the non-enrollers of the Western Shore. The new state constitution was based on extensive property qualifications, leaving all powers and franchises in the hands of the aristocratic elite. To ensure their authority, Chase and the other leaders had to popularize themselves and the revolutionary cause, which they did in two ways. First, they passed a legal tender act authorizing payment of all debts with depreciated money. Secondly, the General Court tended to deal leniently with all cases of men charged with treason, insurrection, and riot; these were invariably found guilty, fined a small amount, and released. Under the cautious policies of the new government, the strong "resentment of authority" eventually eased.[3]

Supreme Court

Because of his conservative court decisions and his activity in the Federalist Party, Justice Chase in 1805 became the target of an impeachment effort led by Republican President Thomas Jefferson. Chase was impeached by the House on flimsy charges focusing on his flamboyant language. For example, one article specified as grounds for removal Chase's "intemperate and inflammatory...peculiarly indecent and unbecoming ...highly unwarrantable" remarks to a Baltimore grand jury. The Senate voted against removal, establishing a precedent against the impeachment of federal judges for political reasons. But Chase, while he had been arrogant as a judge, had not committed great legal offenses. On no charge did the Senate vote the required two-thirds majority for conviction. The trial had three effects: it damaged the Jeffersonian party; it forced judges to improve their judicial decorum and avoid blatant partisanship to avoid impeachment, and it reinforced the principle of the independence of the judiciary in the United States.

Further reading

  • Haw, James, et al. Stormy Patriot: The Life of Samuel Chase. (1980). 305 pp.
  • Knudson, Jerry W. "The Jeffersonian Assault on the Federalist Judiciary, 1802-1805: Political Forces and Press Reaction." American Journal of Legal History 1970 14(1): 55-75. in JSTOR
  • Lillich, Richard. "The Chase Impeachment," American Journal of Legal History 1960 4(1): 49-72. in JSTOR
  • Presser, Stephen B. The Original Misunderstanding: The English, the Americans, and the Dialectic of Federal Jurisprudence (1991)
  • Rehnquist, William H. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. 1992. 303 pp. by a leading conservative Chief Justice


  2. Anne Y. Zimmer, "The 'Paper War' in Maryland, 1772-73: The Paca-Chase Political Philosophy Tested." Maryland Historical Magazine 1976 71(2): 177-193. 0025-4258
  3. Ronald Hoffman, "Popularizing the Revolution: Internal Conflict and Economic Sacrifice in Maryland, 1774-1780" Maryland Historical Magazine 1973 68(2): 125-139. 0025-4258