Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase (1741-1811), American politician and member of the early U.S. Supreme Court, was the most controversial of the founders of the American Republic.

Samuel Chase was born on April 17, 1741, in Somerset County, Md. He was educated, primarily in the classics, by his father, the Rev. Thomas Chase, until 1759, when he began the study of law; 2 years later he was admitted to practice. In 1762 he married Anne Baldwin. He was a member of the assembly (1764-1784) from Annapolis, where he resided until moving to Baltimore (1786).

A Force for Independence

An early and active opponent of the British crown, Chase led the tumultuous demonstrations of the Sons of Liberty against the Stamp Act. After the Boston Tea Party controversy in 1774, he was a member of the Maryland Committee of Correspondence and a delegate to the First Continental Congress. The following year he returned to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress and served in the Maryland Convention and Council of Safety. In the congresses he was among the most active and zealous and was instrumental in causing the Maryland Legislature to change its instructions to its congressional delegation so as to vote for independence. John Adams described Chase in Congress as "violent and boisterous" in debate and "tedious upon frivolous Points." So violent were his attacks on a fellow delegate who was unenthusiastic about independence that his victim retired from Congress. Chase's own patriotism was questioned when Alexander Hamilton (under the pen name "Publius") revealed that Chase had taken advantage of knowledge gained in Congress to try to corner the flour market. Temporarily retired from national politics, Chase remained a dominant figure in Maryland politics.

In 1784 Chase was married again, this time to Hannah Kilty Giles. Through the years he had diversified his business interests to include involvement in confiscated coal and iron lands. In 1789, however, he declared insolvency. He was concerned in drafting the Mount Vernon Agreement of 1785, which settled differences on the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia, but it might be a mistake to see this as a step toward nationalism; and Chase's attitude toward the Constitution bears this out. He was not a delegate to Philadelphia, but under the name "Caution" he assailed the document as undemocratic and voted against ratification. His faction, however, was easily outvoted. Ironically, in view of his later actions, he proposed amendments protecting freedom of press and trial by jury. He was appointed to state judgeships in 1788 and 1791, and his holding of dual offices and his overbearing manner on the bench almost led to his ouster.


Member of the Supreme Court

In the Continental Congress, Chase had helped thwart opponents of Gen. Washington, and when Chase's name was suggested for Federal office in 1795, the President may have remembered this support. Washington first considered appointing Chase attorney general but in 1796 selected him for the Supreme Court, in place of the resigned John Blair. The fact that Chase had converted to Federalism lends credence to the assumption that his democratic opposition to the Constitution was another instance of his demagoguery.

In the first 5 years on the Supreme Court he delivered several precedent-making opinions. In Hylton v. United States, 1796, he defined direct taxation much more satisfactorily than would be done by the Court 99 years later. In Ware v. Hylton, also 1796, he effectively asserted the supremacy of treaties over state law, and 2 years later in Calder v. Bull he provided the textbook definition of expost facto laws. He summed up differing attitudes on judicial review in Cooper v. Telfair. An important circuit opinion was his ruling in United States v. Worrall that Federal courts lacked jurisdiction over common-law crimes.


Impeachment Proceedings

Chase, however, is best remembered for the contentious behavior that he carried to the bench. He advocated passage of the Sedition Act and then acted almost like a prosecutor, especially in the case of James T. Callender. At the second treason trial of John Fries, Chase's action was so high-handed as to lead to a boycott of his Court by Philadelphia lawyers. The "hanging judge," as the Republican press called him, campaigned vigorously for President Adams in 1800 and probably reached the peak of judicial impropriety on May 2, 1803, when he delivered a blistering tirade against democracy and the Jefferson administration, while making a jury charge. This action prompted the Jeffersonians to impeach him, and he was tried but not convicted in 1805, despite intense pressure from Jefferson, the Senate taking a narrow interpretation of the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" of Article III of the Constitution. chase's conviction might well have been followed by the impeachment of Justice John Marshall, but impeachment became a dead letter with Chase's trial, although the prospect may have served to curb the justices' political activities.

Chase was often absent his last 10 years on the bench due to gout, and his productivity was far less than that of his first 5 years. His stormy life ended on June 19, 1811.


Further Reading on Samuel Chase

There is no biography of Chase. Philip A. Crowl, Maryland during and after the Revolution: A Political and Economic Study (1943), provides useful background material, as does the biography of one of his closest friends, Luther Martin of Maryland, by Paul S. Clarkson and R. Samuel Jett (1970). The volumes in preparation on the history of the Supreme Court by Julius Goebel and Gerald A. Gunther will supersede existing works.

Additional Biography Sources

Elsmere, Jane Shaffer, Justice Samuel Chase, Muncie, Ind.: Janevar Pub. Co., 1980.

Stormy patriot: the life of Samuel Chase, Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1980.