The American statesman Salmon Portland Chase (1808-1873) was an ardent advocate of African American rights. He was appointed secretary of the Treasury by President Lincoln, who later made him chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Salmon P. Chase was born at Cornish, N.H., on Jan. 13, 1808. He attended public school at Keene, N.H., and, for a time, a private school in Vermont. He established a reputation for good behavior, scholarly interest, and deep religious feelings. When he was 9 years old his father died, and soon he was placed under the stern direction of his uncle, Philander Chase, one of the great pioneer leaders in the American Episcopal Church.
Philander, "a harsh, autocratic, determined man of God," conducted a church school near Columbus, Ohio, where Salmon pursued classical and religious studies. When Philander, now Bishop Chase, became president of Cincinnati College, Salmon was his student. In less than a year, for some unexplained reason, Salmon left the college and entered Dartmouth College as a junior. He graduated in 1826 "without marked distinction." He had by this time decided to become a lawyer, not a clergyman, but he had not lost his religious devotion.
For a time Chase conducted a school for boys in Washington, D.C., and read law "under the nominal supervision" of William Wirt, one of the nation's best lawyers. He was admitted to the bar in December 1829.
As a practicing lawyer, Chase made his permanent home in Cincinnati. It was a wise choice. Located on the north bank of the Ohio River, with its busy western trade and with slave territory on the opposite bank, Cincinnati offered splendid opportunities to a young lawyer of ability and strong moral views. Chase's legal talents were quickly recognized, and soon he was being called the "attorney for runaway Negroes." His most famous case was the defense of John Vanzant, who had been arrested while carrying a number of Kentucky runaways to freedom under a load of hay. Chase and William H. Seward, as unpaid lawyers, carried Vanzant's case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where their eloquent appeals for minority rights on constitutional grounds attracted national attention. Chase's insistence that no claim to persons as property could be supported by any United States law won antislavery support among those who rejected William Lloyd Garrison's extreme militant views. It also served to advance Chase's political standing in Ohio and led to correspondence with such national antislavery figures as Charles Summer.
Meanwhile Chase's private life was filled with gloom. His first wife died a year after their marriage, his second after 5 years, and his third after 6 years. Of his six children, only two daughters grew to womanhood. The effects of death, always so near, deepened his religious fervor. Days spent in Bible reading and prayer, and soul torture for possible neglect of duty in not impressing others with the need of salvation, left a deep mark on the man.
As a young man, Chase had voted as a Whig, but when the Liberty party emerged, his strong antislavery feelings drew him into its ranks. He was active in its development but was always ready to change parties if slavery could be ended more quickly by another agency. In fact, as the said, he sympathized strongly with the Democratic party in "almost everything excepting its submission to slaveholding leadership and dictation."
This was good politics in the state of Ohio, where widely differing peoples and interests kept party lines fluid. When the Liberty party gave way to the Free Soil party in 1848, Chase cautiously followed and a year later was elected to the U.S. Senate by a coalition of Democrats and Free Soilers.
In the Senate, Chase worked "to divorce our National and State governments from all support of Slavery" and through constitutional means to "deliver our country from its greatest curse." He labored to unite all the antislavery groups in a futile effort to capture the Democratic party and to make it the champion of freedom. Chase viewed the steps leading to the Mexican War as a proslavery drive but supported war measures as an obligation to the soldiers. He backed the Wilmot Proviso, opposed the Compromise of 1850, and was one of the group that issued the "Appeal of the Independent Democrats," with its false charge that Stephen Douglas's Nebraska Bill had opened that territory to slavery.
Chase was important in creating the new Republican party. In his own state he molded dissenting groups into an efficient machine and in 1855 was elected governor. He was reelected in 1857 and, because of his antislavery political record, was widely considered as a presidential candidate. Because of his shifting political course, however, he could seldom count on solid support from the politicians in his own party. Apparent at the first Republican National Convention at Philadelphia in 1856, this became more clear at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860. There, although a "favorite son" candidate, he could not muster a solid vote from his Ohio delegation. Yet Chase and his state were so important to the party that a place in Lincoln's Cabinet was a foregone conclusion. The same held true for William H. Seward and the state of New York. The difficulty was that each of these men thought of himself as superior to the other and even to Lincoln. Both wanted to head the Cabinet as secretary of state, and the rivalry continued even after Lincoln had named Seward to the State Department and made Chase secretary of the Treasury.
Secretary of the Treasury
Chase's task of directing the nation's finances during the Civil War was a difficult one. Vast sums of money had to be borrowed, bonds marketed, and the national currency kept as stable as possible. Interest rates soared; specie payments had to be suspended; and soon a resort to paper money was reluctantly accepted. Yet with the aid of banker Jay Cooke, Chase somehow met the crisis and capped his accomplishments by creating the national banking system, which opened a market for bonds and stabilized currency.
As a member of a Cabinet in which Seward attempted to play the part of "prime minister," Chase led the opposition. To check Seward, he demanded regular Cabinet meetings, gave guarded approval to the provisioning of Ft. Sumter, and openly criticized Seward's handling of foreign affairs. He was equally critical of Lincoln, whom he viewed as incompetent and confused. His main complaints were against the retention of Gen. George McClellan and the refusal to use Negro troops. His constant disagreement with administration policies gained him a following among the Radical Republican element in Congress. In 1862 this led to a Cabinet crisis.
A group of senators, influenced by Chase's complaints, held a secret caucus and drew up a document to be presented to the President, demanding "a change in and a partial reconstruction of the Cabinet." It was, in fact, an effort to remove Seward and to advance Chase. On learning of the plan, Seward sent his resignation to the President, who put it aside. Then, by bringing the protesters and the rest of the Cabinet together for a frank discussion, Lincoln skillfully led Chase to repudiate some of his charges. This hurt Chase with both friend and foe. The next morning he offered his own resignation. Lincoln now held both Seward's and Chase's resignations and, having gained the upper hand, refused to accept either.
As the war dragged on, Chase was increasingly convinced of the impossibility of Lincoln's reelection. The Emancipation Proclamation had been satisfactory as far as it went, he felt, but it had not gone far enough. A new leader with a new approach was needed. Chase decided that it was his duty to seek the Republican nomination. A group of Radical leaders issued a pamphlet declaring Chase as the man who best fit the party's needs. The Chase boom, however, collapsed as Lincoln's hold on the public became clear. This made Chase's place as a Cabinet member embarrassing, and soon Chase submitted his resignation. Lincoln accepted it.
Supreme Court Justice
In the campaign of 1864 Chase made several speeches for Lincoln, and when Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney died in October 1864, Lincoln appointed Chase to that important office. Chase presided over the Supreme Court during the troubled Reconstruction period. The important tasks were to restore the Southern judicial systems and to uphold the law against congressional invasion. Perhaps Chase best revealed his devotion to justice in his insistence on the judicial character of the impeachment proceedings against Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson.
Meanwhile Chase retained his ambition to become president, and with the aid of his beautiful daughter Kate, he made strenuous but futile efforts to secure the Democratic nomination in 1868 and the Liberal Republican nomination in 1872. He died of a stroke in 1873.
Further Reading on Salmon Portland Chase
David Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (1954), includes notes, commentary, and an introduction which assesses Chase's life. Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden, So Fell the Angels (1956), is a composite biography of Chase, his daughter, and her husband. Older but still useful biographies are Albert Bushnell Hart, Salmon Portland Chase (1899), and J. W. Schuckers, The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (1899).
Additional Biography Sources
Blue, Frederick J., Salmon P. Chase: a life in politics, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.
Hart, Albert Bushnell, Salmon P. Chase, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
Niven, John, Salmon P. Chase: a biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.