Chase, Samuel (1741–1811)

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CHASE, SAMUEL (1741–1811)

Samuel Chase was one of the most significant and controversial members of America's revolutionary generation. Irascible and difficult, but also extremely capable, he played a central role in Maryland politics during the 1760s and 1770s, signed the declaration of independence, and was a member of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778. In the latter year alexander hamilton denounced him for using confidential information to speculate in the flour market. During the 1780s Chase pursued various business interests, practiced law, rebuilt his political reputation, and became an important anti-Federalist leader. After the adoption of the Constitution, for reasons that remain unclear, he became an ardent Federalist.

In 1795 he was nominated for a position on the federal bench. President george washington was at first wary of recommending him, but when he had trouble filling a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, he offered the position to Chase, who accepted in 1796. As one of the better legal minds in the early republic, Chase delivered several of the Court's most important decisions in the pre-Marshall period. In ware v. hylton (1796) he provided one of the strongest statements ever issued on the supremacy of national treaties over state laws. The decision invalidated a Virginia statute of 1777 that placed obstacles in the way of recovery of debts owed by Americans to British creditors, a law in clear violation of a specific provision of the treaty of peace with Great Britain (1783). In hylton v. united states (1796) Chase and the Supreme Court for the first time passed upon the constitutionality of an act of Congress, upholding the carriage tax of 1794. Chase concluded that only capitation taxes were direct taxes subject to the constitutional requirement of apportionment among the states according to population. In calder v. bull (1798), where the Supreme Court held that the prohibition against ex post facto laws in the Constitution extended only to criminal, not civil, laws, Chase addressed the issue of constitutionality in natural law terms, presaging those late-nineteenth-century jurists who, in furthering the concept of substantive due process, were to argue that the Supreme Court could properly hold laws invalid for reasons lying outside the explicit prohibitions of the constitutional text. Riding circuit, he ruled in United States v. Worrall (1798) that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over crimes defined by common law. This position, which Chase abandoned, was adopted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Hudson and Goodwin (1812). (See federal common law of crimes.)

A fierce partisan, Chase refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Jeffersonian opposition in the party struggles of the late 1790s. He used his position on the bench to make speeches for the Federalists and he supported the passage of the alien and sedition acts in 1798. Riding circuit, he enforced the law with a vengeance when he presided over the trials of John Fries of Pennsylvania for treason and John Callendar of Virginia for sedition, sentencing the former to death (Fries was eventually pardoned by President john adams) and the latter to a stiff fine and a prison sentence. When thomas jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1801 and repealed the judiciary act of 1801, Chase vigorously campaigned behind the scenes for the Supreme Court to declare the repeal law unconstitutional, but the other Justices did not go along with him. Chase, however, remained adamant in his opposition to the Jeffersonians, refusing to alter his partisan behavior. "Things," he argued, "must take their natural course, from bad to worse. " In May 1803, in an intemperate charge to a grand jury in Baltimore, he launched yet another attack on the Republican party and its principles.

Shortly thereafter, President Jefferson urged that Chase be removed from office. The House of Representatives voted for his impeachment, and he came to trial before the United States Senate. The Constitution authorizes impeachment and conviction of federal government officers for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Many of the more militant Republicans, unhappy with Federalist control of the judiciary, favored an expansive view of what should constitute an impeachable offense. As one put it: "Removal by impeachment was nothing more than a declaration by Congress to this effect: You held dangerous opinions and if you are suffered to carry them into effect, you will work the destruction of the Union. We want your offices for the purpose of giving them to men who will fill them better." Others, including a number of Republicans, favored a narrow definition: impeachment was permitted only for a clearly indictable offense.

Chase proved to be a formidable opponent. Aided by a prestigious group of Federalist trial lawyers, he put up a strong defense, denying that any of his actions were indictable offenses under either statute or common law. His attorneys raised various complicated and even moot legal questions such as the binding quality of local custom; the reciprocal rights and duties of the judge, jury, and defense counsel; the legality of bad manners in a court room; the rules of submitting evidence; and the problems involved in proving criminal intent. The prosecution was led by john randolph, an extreme Republican and highly emotional man who badly botched the legal part of his argument. Chase was acquitted on all counts, even though most senators disliked him and believed his conduct on the bench had been improper. The final result was not so much a vote for Chase as it was against a broad definition of the impeachment clause—a definition that might be used to remove other judges, perhaps even to dismantle the federal judiciary altogether. Even Jefferson appears to have come around to this point of view; he made no attempt to enforce party unity when the Senate voted, and he was not unhappy with the outcome of the trial.

Although Chase served on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life, he no longer played an important role. john marshall had begun his ascendancy, and although Marshall was a staunch nationalist, he was less overtly partisan than Chase and less inclined to provoke confrontations with the Jeffersonians.

Richard E. Ellis


Ellis, Richard E. 1981 The Impeachment of Samuel Chase. Pages 57–78 in Michal Belknap, ed., American Political Trials. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Haw, James et al. 1981 Stormy Patriot: The Life of Samuel Chase. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.