Salmon Portland Chase
Chase, Salmon Portland
CHASE, SALMON PORTLAND
Salmon Portland Chase served from 1864 to 1873 as the sixth chief justice of the supreme court of the united states. He was also a distinguished lawyer and politician, serving as U.S. senator from Ohio (1849–55 and 1860–61), governor of Ohio (1855–59), and secretary of the treasury (1861–64). Chase also sought the presidential nomination in every election between 1856 and 1872, even while sitting as chief justice. As a result, many criticized him for neglecting his judicial responsibilities in favor of his political ambitions. Despite his extrajudicial activities, Chase helped to navigate the Supreme Court through the dangerous political waters of Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when the country attempted to rebuild itself and readmit the Southern states to the Union, preserving the Court's powers when a Republican-dominated Congress sought to control both the presidency and the Supreme Court. As chief justice, Chase presided over the 1868 impeachment trial of President andrew johnson. Chase was an ardent opponent of slavery his entire life, and in his last years on the Court he fought against a narrow interpretation of the fourteenth amendment, an interpretation that he surmised would allow future state legislatures to rescind the newly won rights of African Americans.
Chase was born January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire, the eighth of 11 children in a family that had lived in New England since the 1600s. His father operated a tavern as well as a glass factory and distillery near Keene, New Hampshire, and died when Chase was nine years old. Chase had two prominent uncles who aided him in his father's absence: Dudley Chase, who served two terms as U.S. senator from Vermont (1813–17 and 1825–31), and Philander Chase, who became bishop of Ohio for the Episcopal Church and president of Cincinnati College. When he was 12 years old, Chase moved to Ohio to help on Philander Chase's farm. In return for his work, his uncle taught him Greek, Latin, and mathematics in his church school. Chase attended Cincinnati College for a year then eventually returned to his family in New Hampshire and entered Dartmouth College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1826.
After college, Chase moved to Washington, D.C., where he studied law under Attorney General william wirt. He passed the bar exam and returned to Cincinnati to set up a legal practice. In Cincinnati, Chase's personal life was clouded by tragedy. He lost three wives between 1835 and 1852. He had one daughter by each of his last two wives. He remained single for the last part of his life and was a devoted father to his two daughters.
Chase strongly opposed slavery from his early years, a position that owed much to his deeply religious outlook. In Ohio, he was nicknamed the Attorney General for Runaway Negroes for his legal representation of abolitionists who had aided runaway slaves from Kentucky. He even took two of these cases to the U.S. Supreme Court—Jones v. Van Zandt, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 215, 12 L. Ed. 122 (1847), and Moore v. Illinois, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 13, 14 L. Ed. 306 (1852)—both of which he lost. About his nickname, Chase commented that he "never refused …help to any person black or white, and that he liked the office nonetheless because there were neither fees nor salary connected with it."
"No more slave states, and no more slave territory. let the soil of our extensive domain be kept free."
—Salmon Portland Chase
In 1849 Chase was elected to the U.S. Senate as a member of the Free-Soil party, which sought to keep new states in the west free of slavery. In the Senate, he and charles sumner became leading spokesmen for the antislavery movement. He gained renown through his opposition to the 1854 kansas-nebraska act, which allowed each territory to conduct a popular vote deciding whether it would permit slavery. Shortly thereafter, he helped to found the antislavery republican party, and in 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio. He was considered for the 1856 Republican presidential nomination but was passed over, and in February 1860 he was reelected to the U.S. Senate. In May of the same year, he sought the presidential nomination at the Republican convention in Chicago. Chase and William H. Seward were considered the chief contenders for the nomination, but on the third ballot Chase's supporters gave their votes to abraham lincoln, thus giving the man from Illinois the nomination. After his election, Lincoln offered Chase and Seward the respective posts of secretary of the treasury and secretary of state. Chase then gave up his seat as U.S. senator.
At the Treasury, Chase faced the difficult task of financing a government that was engaged in a civil war. As part of this effort, he helped to establish a national banking system that gave the federal government its first effective national paper currency. Early in the war, Chase also advised military leaders who sought guidance from Washington, D.C. Chase was often unhappy with the decisions of Lincoln and other members of the cabinet and resolved that he could do better as president. He therefore opposed Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination in 1864. Chase had the support of the more liberal wing of the Republican Party but he eventually withdrew his name from consideration, conceding to the more popular Lincoln. In June 1864, after several disagreements with Lincoln, Chase resigned from the cabinet.
Despite their differences, Lincoln admired Chase, and in December 1864 he nominated Chase to succeed roger b. taney as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He nominated Chase with the expectation that Chase would sustain two extraordinary measures taken by the Union during the war—the emancipation of the slaves and the issuance of paper money to repay debt. Both measures had caused great controversy, and as a result many Americans had lost confidence in the federal government.
Chase joined a Court with only three other justices who consistently supported Republican positions, Justices david davis, noah h. swayne, and samuel f. miller, all appointed by Lincoln. The Court was sharply divided over the various issues surrounding Reconstruction. The post–Civil War crisis deepened when Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and Vice President Andrew Johnson became president.
Chase urged a moderate, conciliatory stance toward the defeated South, a stance that eventually alienated him from the Radical Republicans, a faction of the Republican party that sought to impose strict military measures and punitive new laws on the states of the former Confederacy. Like the Radical Republicans, Chase supported expanded freedoms for African Americans. Unlike them, however, he also supported such measures as ending military government in the South, pardoning Confederate leaders, and quickly restoring Southern states to the Union. Chase's moderation helped to spare Jefferson Davis, president of the former Confederacy. After the war, Davis had been imprisoned in Virginia, part of Chase's circuit, where the
government hoped to try him for treason. Chase refused to hold a civil trial while the area was still under military rule. Although a grand jury indicted Davis for treason, no action was taken against him, and eventually the government's case was dismissed.
Many of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions during Chase's tenure involved the thorny issue of Reconstruction. In March 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which divided the South into five districts and imposed military rule. Reconstruction involved new problems of constitutional interpretation as to the federal government's powers over the states. At issue were questions not only of states' rights but also of the status of freed slaves. In one early decision, ex parte milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 18 L. Ed. 284 (1866), Chase voted with the Court in challenging Congress over Reconstruction. The Court held that Congress could not authorize military trials where civil courts were still operating. The majority opinion warned of the military's "gross usurpation of power"—a direct challenge to the Reconstruction Acts passed by Congress. However, in later decisions Chase voted to uphold congressional laws pertaining to Reconstruction. In the 1867 Test Oath cases—Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 277, 18 L. Ed. 356, and Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333, 18 L. Ed. 366—Chase disagreed with the Court's decision to strike down laws requiring that priests and lawyers swear oaths of loyalty to the Union. In his dissenting opinion, joined by Chase, Justice Miller declared that no punishment was inflicted by requiring such an oath and that Congress could impose such requirements. Chase considered texas v. white, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 700, 19 L. Ed. 227 (1868) to be the most important case of his Supreme Court career. Chase, writing the Court's opinion, upheld the general principles of Reconstruction, asserting that Congress, and not the Supreme Court, possessed the authority to recognize state governments as legitimate.
When Southern states sought to make cases in court against executives of the federal government—including President Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton—Chase joined the majority in dismissing those cases, thereby aiding Congress in its Reconstruction fervor. In Mississippi v. Johnson, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 475, 18 L. Ed. 437 (1867), Mississippi, in the first court case ever to name the president of the United States as an individual party, attempted to prevent President Johnson from enforcing certain provisions of the Reconstruction Acts. Chase dismissed the case, holding that preventing the president from acting on congressional legislation would cause a "collision …between the executive and legislative departments of the government." This, in turn, would give the House grounds to sue for the president's impeachment. This opinion proved prophetic, of course, when Congress did attempt to impeach President Johnson.
Chase's public standing improved when he ably handled the impeachment trial of President Johnson in March 1868. The Radical Republican–dominated Congress had voted to bring impeachment proceedings against Johnson after he dismissed one of their favorite members of his cabinet, Secretary of War Stanton. The Senate sat as a court of impeachment with Chase presiding as judge. Chase frustrated Radical Republican aims by sticking to procedural rules and helping to bring about Johnson's acquittal, which passed the Senate by one vote. The public acclaim occasioned by his handling of the impeachment trial led Chase to make another try at the presidency in 1868. That time, however, Chase made known his desire to run as a Democratic candidate, largely because his moderate positions toward the South had endeared him to Democrats. His efforts failed.
Although the Supreme Court under Chase's leadership rarely questioned congressional Reconstruction measures after 1867, it did declare other federal legislation unconstitutional. Whereas before 1864 the Court had over-turned acts of Congress only twice—in marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803), and dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857)—between 1864 and 1873 it voided ten pieces of congressional legislation. These decisions included the first of the Legal Tender Cases, Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 603, 19 L. Ed. 513 (1870)—but reversed later by Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis, 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 457, 20 L. Ed. 287 (1871), heard concurrently—in which Chase questioned much of his earlier work for the Treasury when he declared the Legal Tender Acts (12 Stat. 345, 532, 709) unconstitutional. This decision created a temporary crisis of confidence in the national currency. The Court reversed this decision in 1871 after a change in membership, with Chase sticking to his views of two years earlier. Despite his participation in
such judicial activism, Chase at other times advocated judicial restraint. In his opinion for the Licence Tax Cases, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 462, 18 L. Ed. 497 (1868), in which he upheld a law that taxed the sale of lottery tickets throughout the United States, Chase wrote:
This court can know nothing of public policy except from the Constitution and the laws, and the course of administration and decision. It has no legislative powers. It cannot amend or modify any legislative acts. It cannot examine questions as expedient or inexpedient, as politic or impolitic. Considerations of that sort must, in general, be addressed to the legislature. Questions of policy determined there are concluded here.
ulysses s. grant won the presidential election of 1868, and from that time onward, the power of Radical Republicanism began to wane. Grant's appointments made the Court a more conservative body. In the slaughter-house cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873), Chase dissented from the Court's narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1868 and sought to protect the rights of African-Americans against infringements by state legislation. In its Slaughter-House decision, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges and immunities clause protected only a few select rights of national citizenship, such as the right to travel. The Court did not interpret the amendment as guaranteeing more fundamental rights, such as the right to vote. Chase objected that the Court's opinion jeopardized newly won freedoms for African Americans. It would take another century before the Court would reverse this narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chase suffered a series of crippling strokes beginning in 1870. Despite his failing health, his daughter Catherine Chase and other admirers put forth his name for the 1872 presidential nomination. As had happened each time before, his nomination came to nothing. He died May 7, 1873, after suffering a stroke while visiting his daughter in New York City, and he was interred in Spring Grove Cemetary in Cincinnati. Although Chase did not achieve his highest goal of becoming president, he nevertheless held more high offices during his life than did any other Supreme Court justice besides James F. Byrnes and william h. taft. More importantly, Chase successfully guided the Court through some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the nation. His actions as chief justice helped to preserve the powers of the Supreme Court in the face of serious congressional challenges during the extraordinary years following the Civil War.
Blue, Frederick J. 1987. Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.
Cushman, Claire, ed. 1993. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Hyman, Harold Melvin. 1997. The Reconstruction Justice of Salmon P. Chase. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Niven, John. 1995. Salmon P. Chase: A Biography. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Salmon Portland Chase
Salmon Portland Chase
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.
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).
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. □
Chase, Salmon Portland
CHASE, SALMON PORTLAND
Salmon Portland Chase (1808–1873) was a lawyer who was deeply devoted to the antislavery movement. This cause led him to political life, where he became the first Republican governor of Ohio. Though he tried unsuccessfully to run for president several times, he did serve as Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Salmon Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, on January 13, 1808. He attended public school at Keene, New Hampshire, and then attended private school in Vermont. When he was nine years old, Chase's father passed away and his uncle, Philander Chase, an early leader of the American Episcopal Church, raised him. Chase pursued classical and religious studies at his uncle's church school near Columbus, Ohio. His uncle then became president of Cincinnati College, and Chase studied there as well for a brief time. Later, Chase entered Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1826.
After graduation, Chase worked briefly as the headmaster of a boys' school in Washington, DC, and privately studied law. In 1829 he was admitted to the bar and soon returned to Cincinnati to practice law. The city, located on the northern bank of the Ohio River, was a busy trade port whose opposite bank bordered slave territory. Chase held deeply rooted moral opinions stemming from his upbringing and was strongly opposed to slavery. He quickly entrenched himself in the antislavery cause and soon earned a reputation as the "attorney for runaway Negroes."
Chase had a rather sad private life. His first wife died a year after their marriage, his second wife died after five years, and his third wife after six years. Of his six children, only two daughters grew to adulthood. These tragic experiences deepened his religious fervor.
In public life, however, Chase was quite successful. His strong sentiments for the antislavery movement shaped his political associations. In 1840 he helped organize the Liberty Party and then became active in the Free Soil Party in 1848. It was on the Free Soil ticket that Chase was elected to a six-year term in the United States Senate in 1849. He continued his fight against slavery as a Senator and opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
In 1854 Chase helped establish the Republican Party in Ohio. Three years later he was elected the first Republican governor of the state. Chase was re-elected in 1857 and was widely considered a potential presidential candidate. Because of his fluid party affiliations, however, Chase could not garner enough support from one party to run for president. When Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) won the presidency, Chase was appointed to Lincoln's Cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury.
In this position Chase faced the difficult task of organizing the country's finances during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Large sums of money had to be borrowed, bonds marketed, and the national currency kept as stable as possible. Chase was even forced to issue paper currency, or "greenbacks," to help finance the war, although he personally favored hard currency. Despite these challenges Chase also managed to develop a national banking system, which opened a market for bonds and stabilized currency.
While Chase was successful in his position as Secretary of the Treasury, he was often in disagreement with the president and with other members of the Cabinet. Chase was disappointed with the Emancipation Proclamation, believing its stand against slavery was too weak. In 1864 he resigned as Secretary of the Treasury and sought the Republican nomination for president. His bid was unsuccessful, however, because of Lincoln's intense popularity with the public. Instead, Chase made several speeches on Lincoln's behalf during the campaign. When Lincoln again won the presidency, he appointed Chase Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Chase presided over the Supreme Court during the troubled Reconstruction period (1865–1877). His important tasks were to restore the Southern judicial system and uphold the law against congressional invasion. Chase also supported the Radical Republicans, who believed that African Americans should be guaranteed their civil rights before the southern states could be readmitted to the Union. Chase's most memorable role as Chief Justice was presiding over the impeachment proceedings of President Andrew Johnson (1865–1869), for which he commended for his fairness and devotion to justice during the proceedings.
Even while serving as Chief Justice, Chase still sought the post of U.S. President, hoping to become Lincoln's successor. He tried to secure the Democratic nomination in 1868 and the Liberal Republican nomination in 1872, but was unsuccessful both times. Chase died of a stroke in 1873.
Blue, Frederick J. Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1987.
Chase, Salmon P. The Salmon P. Chase Papers. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1993.
Niven, John, and Frederick J. Blue. "Salmon P. Chase." The Journal of American History, 82, December 1995.
Chase, Salmon Portland
Salmon Portland Chase, 1808–73, American public official and jurist, 6th chief justice of the United States (1864–73), b. Cornish, N.H. Admitted to the bar in 1829, he defended runaway blacks so often that he became known as
"attorney general for fugitive slaves."
Chase became prominent in the Liberty party and later in the Free-Soil party and was elected by a coalition of Free-Soilers and antislavery Democrats to the U.S. Senate, where (1849–55) he eloquently opposed such proslavery measures as the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Chase was elected governor of Ohio in 1855 at the head of a Republican ticket that was dominated by Know-Nothings; by 1857, when he was reelected, he was a leading member of the new Republican party. He was a splendid figure of a man, a "sculptor's ideal of a President," and few Americans have ever gone after that high office with more determination—or less success. He sought the Republican nomination in 1860, but since he lacked the full support of even his own state's delegation and since many considered him an extreme abolitionist, his chance passed quickly.
Again elected to the Senate, Chase served only two days in Mar., 1861, before resigning to become Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. In that difficult position he took part in framing for Congress the new fiscal legislation necessitated by the Civil War, collected new taxes, placed unprecedentedly large loans with reluctant investors, and directed vast expenditures. To assist in government financing and also to improve the status of the currency, he proposed the national bank system (established in Feb., 1863), which is generally considered his greatest achievement. Ambition and a high regard for his own worth made Chase a difficult man to work with; after refusing four previous attempts, Lincoln finally accepted Chase's resignation on June 29, 1864.
Chase failed in his effort to secure the presidential nomination, but he remained an important national figure, and on Dec. 6, 1864, after the death of Roger B. Taney, Lincoln appointed Chase chief justice of the United States. He took a moderate stand in most of the important Reconstruction cases. His dissenting opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases subsequently became the accepted position of the courts as to the restrictive force of the Fourteenth Amendment. On the other hand, his decision (1870) in Hepburn v. Griswold (see Legal Tender cases) was soon reversed. For his fairness in presiding over the Senate in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, he was furiously denounced by his old radical friends. Chase persisted in seeking the presidency, but neither the Democrats in 1868 nor the Liberal Republicans in 1872 were interested in him.
See biography by A. B. Hart (1899, repr. 1969); D. H. Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (1954, repr. 1970); J. W. Schuckers, Life and Public Services of Salmon P. Chase (1874, repr. 1970).