1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chase, Salmon Portland

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CHASE, SALMON PORTLAND (1808-1873), American statesman and jurist, was born in Cornish township, New Hampshire, on the 13th of January 1808. His father died in 1817, and the son passed several years (1820-1824) in Ohio with his uncle, Bishop Philander Chase (1775-1852), the foremost pioneer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the West, the first bishop of Ohio (1819-1831), and after 1835 bishop of Illinois. He graduated at Dartmouth College in 1826, and after studying law under William Wirt, attorney-general of the United States, in Washington, D.C., was admitted to the bar in 1829, and removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1830. Here he soon gained a position of prominence at the bar, and published an annotated edition, which long remained standard, of the laws of Ohio. At a time when public opinion in Cincinnati was largely dominated by Southern business connexions, Chase, influenced probably by James G. Birney, associated himself after about 1836 with the anti-slavery movement, and became recognized as the leader of the political reformers as opposed to the Garrisonian abolitionists. To the cause he freely gave his services as a lawyer, and was particularly conspicuous as counsel for fugitive slaves seized in Ohio for rendition to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 — indeed, he came to be known as the “attorney-general of fugitive slaves.” His argument (1847) in the famous Van Zandt case before the United States Supreme Court attracted particular attention, though in this as in other cases of the kind the judgment was against him. In brief he contended that slavery was “local, not national,” that it could exist only by virtue of positive State Law, that the Federal government was not empowered by the Constitution to create slavery anywhere, and that “when a slave leaves the jurisdiction of a state he ceases to be a slave, because he continues to be a man and leaves behind him the law which made him a slave.” In 1841 he abandoned the Whig party, with which he had previously been affiliated, and for seven years was the undisputed leader of the Liberty party in Ohio; he was remarkably skilful in drafting platforms and addresses, and it was he who prepared the national Liberty platform of 1843 and the Liberty address of 1845. Realizing in time that a third party movement could not succeed, he took the lead during the campaign of 1848 in combining the Liberty party with the Barnburners or Van Buren Democrats of New York to form the Free-Soilers. He drafted the famous Free-Soil platform, and it was largely through his influence that Van Buren was nominated for the presidency. His object, however, was not to establish a permanent new party organization, but to bring pressure to bear upon Northern Democrats to force them to adopt a policy opposed to the further extension of slavery.

In 1849 he was elected to the United States Senate as the result of a coalition between the Democrats and a small group of Free-Soilers in the state legislature; and for some years thereafter, except in 1852, when he rejoined the Free-Soilers, he classed himself as an Independent Democrat, though he was out of harmony with the leaders of the Democratic party. During his service in the Senate (1840-1855) he was pre-eminently the champion of anti-slavery in that body, and no one spoke more ably than he did against the Compromise Measures of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska legislation, and the subsequent troubles in Kansas, having convinced him of the futility of trying to influence the Democrats, he assumed the leadership in the North-west of the movement to form a new party to oppose the extension of slavery. The “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States,” written by Chase and Giddings, and published in the New York Times of the 24th of January 1854, may be regarded as the earliest draft of the Republican party creed. He was the first Republican governor of Ohio, serving from 1855 to 1859. Although, with the exception of Seward, he was the most prominent Republican in the country, and had done more against slavery than any other Republican, he failed to secure the nomination for the presidency in 1860, partly because his views an the question of protection were not orthodox from a Republican point of view, and partly because the old line Whig element could not forgive his coalition with the Democrats in the senatorial campaign of 1849; his uncompromising and conspicuous anti-slavery record, too, was against him from the point of view of “availability.” As secretary of the treasury in President Lincoln's cabinet in 1861-1864, during the first three years of the Civil War, he rendered services of the greatest value. That period of crisis witnessed two great changes in American financial policy, the establishment of a national banking system and the issue of a legal tender paper currency. The former was Chase's own particular measure. He suggested the idea, worked out all of the important principles and many of the details, and induced Congress to accept them. The success of that system alone warrants his being placed in the first rank of American financiers. It not only secured an immediate market for government bonds, but it also provided a permanent uniform national currency, which, though inelastic, is absolutely stable. The issue of legal tenders, the greatest financial blunder of the war, was made contrary to his wishes, although he did not, as he perhaps ought to have done, push his opposition to the point of resigning.

Perhaps Chase's chief defect as a statesman was an insatiable desire for supreme office. It was partly this ambition, and also temperamental differences from the president, which led him to retire from the cabinet in June 1864. A few months later (December 6, 1864) he was appointed chief justice of the United States Supreme Court to succeed Judge Taney, a position which he held until his death in 1873. Among his most important decisions were Texas v. White (7 Wallace, 700), 1869, in which he asserted that the Constitution provided for an “indestructible union composed of indestructible states,” Veazie Bank v. Fenno (8 Wallace, 533), 1869, in defence of that part of the banking legislation of the Civil War which imposed a tax of 10% on state bank-notes, and Hepburn v. Griswold (8 Wallace, 603), 1869, which declared certain parts of the legal tender acts to be unconstitutional. When the legal tender decision, was reversed after the appointment of new judges, 1871-1872 (Legal Tender Cases, 12 Wallace, 457), Chase prepared a very able dissenting opinion. Toward the end of his life he gradually drifted back toward his old Democratic position, and made an unsuccessful effort to secure the nomination of the Democratic party for the presidency in 1872. He died in New York city on the 7th of May 1873. Chase was one of the ablest political leaders of the Civil War period, and deserves to be placed in the front rank of American statesmen.

The standard biography is A. B. Hart's Salmon Portland Chase in the “American Statesmen Series” (1899). Less philosophical, but containing a greater wealth of detail, is J. W. Shuckers' Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (New York, 1874). R. B. Warden's Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (Cincinnati, 1874) deals more fully with Chase's private life.