The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Chase, Salmon Portland

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Chase, Salmon Portland
Edition of 1920. See also Salmon P. Chase on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CHASE, Salmon Portland, American jurist and statesman: b. Cornish, N. H., 13 Jan. 1808; d. New York, 7 May 1873. He was the son of Ithamar and Janet Ralston Chase, the former of English and the latter of Scotch descent. After a preliminary education in schools at Keene, N. H., and Windsor, Vt., and under a tutor, he went to Ohio in 1820 under the care of his uncle, Philander Chase (q.v.), Episcopal bishop of Ohio, and attended the bishop's school at Worthington, near Columbus, doing farm work when not in the school room. He studied for a year at Cincinnati College but then returned to Keene, in 1824 entered Dartmouth College as a junior, teaching in country schools during the winter vacations, and graduated in 1826. He then went to Washington, D. C., for the next three years taught in a boys' school there, during which time he studied law, and in December 1829 was admitted to the bar. In March 1830 he went to Cincinnati, where he began the practice of law, soon becoming known as one of the best lawyers in that city. He also made an impression as a lecturer, delivering several lectures before the Cincinnati Lyceum, which he was largely instrumental in founding, two of his lectures being published in the North American Review entitled “The Life and Character of Henry Brougham” (July 1831) and “Effects of Machinery” (January 1832). In 1832 he formed the project of publishing a collection of the laws of Ohio with notes and references, and his work, even though it did not reward him financially, became the standard edition and gave him a solid reputation throughout the West. He also wrote a brief but excellent historical sketch of Ohio. In July 1834 Chase became solicitor of the Cincinnati branch of the Bank of the United States, and in the following November became solicitor of the Lafayette Bank, these trusts affording him so lucrative a practice that his literary pursuits were practically abandoned. In 1841 his connection with the Bank of the United States was severed because his fees were considered too high, but politics and the anti-slavery movement were beginning to absorb his attention and his loss failed to disturb him. Meanwhile on 4 March 1834 he had married Catherine Jane Garniss, who died 1 Dec. 1835; on 26 Sept. 1839 he married Eliza Ann Smith (d. 29 Sept. 1845), and on 6 Nov. 1846, Sarah Bella Dunlop Ludlow (d. 13 June 1852). Of his six children only two lived to maturity.

Early in his career Chase became identified with the anti-slavery movement. He was aroused not by the wrongs of the slaves altogether but by the dangers to white men, and his earliest act as an anti-slavery man (1836) was to defend the rights of a fellow citizen (James G. Birney) to express his mind freely. He indignantly disavowed any sympathy with the disunion sentiments of William Lloyd Garrison (q.v.), declaring that he was not one of those “abolitionists or anti-slavery men who regarded the Constitution as at war with moral obligations and the supreme law.” He states in his diary that he differed from Garrison and others “as to the means by which the slave power could be best overthrown and slavery most safely and fitly abolished under our American Constitution.” He was a frequent speaker at anti-slavery meetings and conventions throughout Ohio and the neighboring States and even in the East, but he was neither an orator nor a good stump speaker. His great forte was the preparation of formal addresses and platforms, since in these he had time and space more carefully and comprehensively to marshal his facts and thoughts, and accordingly from 1841 to 1848 he was often called upon by the Liberty and Free Soil men to undertake such tasks. But while Chase's powers of statement made him a valuable ally of the Ohio anti-slavery men, he became their leader in the period from 1837 to 1849 chiefly through his pronouncements against slavery and his legal services in connection with fugitive slave cases. He became known as the “attorney-general of fugitive slaves,” but was defeated in every case in which he appeared for the defense. Some of his arguments were against indisputable historical facts — such as his absolute denial that Congress possessed power to establish slavery anywhere by any process, though he did admit that laws had been framed to support slavery in the District of Columbia, in the territories, and (as regards fugitive slaves) in free States, but he declared Congress had no constitutional power to enact such laws. He held the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to be contrary to the Ordinance of 1787, which provided for recovery of slaves only from the “original States” and to be incompatible with the constitutional form of Federal government for, said he, “when a slave passes beyond the jurisdiction of the State in which he is held as such, he ceases to be a slave, because he continues to be a man and leaves behind him the law of force which made him at slave.” The law was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, in denying “due process of law” and authorizing “unreasonable searches and seizures”; the States and not Congress were responsible for the apprehension of fugitive slaves; and finally, “the legislature cannot authorize injustice by law; . . . it cannot repeal the laws of nature, cannot create any obligation to do wrong, or neglect duty. No court is bound to enforce unjust laws.” These and other arguments were used in his various cases. In March 1837 he acted as counsel for an alleged fugitive slave, Matilda, and for Birney, who was accused of “harboring” her. Chase based his argument on the fact that Matilda had been brought into Ohio by her master and had then escaped, wherefore she was a free person and could not be “a person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another.” The judge decided against Chase, and Matilda was remanded into slavery, but Birney appealed and the State Supreme Court reversed the decision. The most famous of the Ohio fugitive slave cases was that of John Van Zandt, who attempted to convey to safety some slaves who had escaped from their owner and were later recovered by force. One of the slaves escaped, however, and the owner sued Van Zandt to recover the slave's value and the expense of recapturing the others and also to recover the penalty of $500 allowed by the act of 1793 against anyone who “after due notice harbored and concealed” a fugitive. Chase defended Van Zandt at the first trial in July 1842 and lost, but the award of $500 against Van Zandt was appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1847 sustained the lower tribunal.

Anti-slavery had already begun to play a prominent part in Ohio politics and to Chase fell the task of organizing, politically, the Liberty and Free-Soil parties. Up to 1840 politics had only a mild interest for Chase, though he was a delegate to the National Republican Convention that nominated Clay in 1832. In 1836, though a Whig, he voted for General Harrison, as he did also in 1840, showing no sympathy for his friend Birney, who in 1840 was the candidate of the new Liberty party. But in May 1841 Chase had deserted the Whig party forever and had cast in his lot with Birney. Within a year he was practically the leader of the Liberty party in Ohio and for eight years organized conventions, prepared party addresses and bolstered up the anti-slavery press. He took part in the National Liberty Convention at Buffalo in 1843 and again in 1847, but through a shrewd move he practically dissolved the old Liberty party and secured a convention of the party members, now known as Free-Soilers, at Buffalo in August 1848. This convention, over which Chase presided, nominated Van Buren for the Presidency. On 22 Feb. 1849, through a curious combination of Democrats, Independent Democrats and Free-Soilers in the State legislature, he was elected to the United States Senate. There he continued his opposition to slavery during the stormy scenes of the period of compromise in 1850, and was particularly outspoken, especially in his speech of 26-27 March 1850, in condemning Clay's position and proposal. Chase usually acted with the Democrats, claiming to have been elected as a Democrat, and thereby losing a large share of the confidence of the Free-Soilers, but he gradually became estranged from the Democrats, too, and in 1851 to 1852 spent much of his time in a futile attempt to build up a “Free Democracy”; finally in 1852 the nomination of Pierce on a pro-slavery platform compelled him to withdraw entirely from the Democratic party and to rejoin his old Free-Soil allies. In 1853, however, the Democrats secured a majority in the State legislature and therefore Chase failed of re-election to the Senate. In 1854, even with such men as Sumner and Seward in the Senate, he became the leader of the opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill and on 24 Jan. 1854, in collaboration with Sumner, Giddings and others, issued the historic “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States,” but he could not prevent the passage of the bill. The political result of the struggle was the rending of the Whig party and the formation by the northern Whigs and independent Democrats of the Republican party, largely due to Chase's activities, In July 1855, therefore, the “Anti-Nebraska” Republican Convention of Ohio nominated him for governor and after a close contest he was elected. He made an excellent executive, introduced many needed reforms and continuing his efforts in behalf of the negro, and in 1856 believed himself qualified for the Presidency, but he could not secure pledged votes sufficient for his nomination at the Republican convention and withdrew his name. In 1857 he was re-elected governor; thenceforth he was recognized as a Republican leader, and on 2 Feb. 1860 was again elected United States Senator for the term beginning 4 March 1861. Again in 1860 he endeavored to obtain the Presidential nomination but was unsuccessful and in January 1861, at the solicitation of Lincoln (then President-elect), accepted the post of Secretary of the Treasury, taking the oath of office 7 March and thus relinquishing the senatorship.

Hardly had he assumed office when, in April 1861, the Civil War began. He rehabilitated the disorganized and almost bankrupt treasury; suggested and secured the enactment of new taxes and property confiscation acts; borrowed money, maintained the national credit, regulated commerce; provided the legal tender paper currency authorized by Congress; insisted upon the establishment of a national banking system and finally saw it put into operation; and administered his department and the financial affairs of the country in so creditable a manner as to distinguish himself as one of the great incumbents of that important Cabinet office. (See United States, Finances of the, 1861). Despite his onerous duties he never lost sight of the slavery question, supported Butler's contention that slaves escaping within the Union army lines were “contraband of war” and advocated the arming of negroes. He opposed Lincoln's colonization scheme but warmly supported the Emancipation Proclamation, though it did not exactly conform to his conception of the proper method of solving this problem. He differed with the President in many of his political views; held a widely divergent idea of the functions of department heads and felt aggrieved when Lincoln disregarded his advice on military affairs; he corresponded with army commanders and has even been accused of counseling disobedience to the President's orders, directly criticising him and expressing a distrust of him, that, considering its source, could only have created dissension among those for whose conduct Lincoln was directly responsible to the people. Like Seward, Chase hoped to obtain ascendency over Lincoln, and when he learned that Lincoln, after his own fashion, completely dominated the situation and was determined to survive or perish according to the success or failure of his own policies, he resigned (as did Seward, too,) 20 Dec. 1862, petulantly stating that he expected his opinions and those of his colleagues to carry more weight with the President — “there are certain heads of departments, but no real Cabinet.” Lincoln refused to accept the resignations, but on 3 March 1863 Chase prepared another resignation because Lincoln refused to nominate a revenue collector selected by him. Again on 11 May 1863 Chase became disgruntled because Lincoln removed an official whom he considered unfit for his post, but Lincoln again refused to accept the proffered resignation. The minor differences between Lincoln and Chase were accentuated by their rivalry for the Presidential nomination in 1864, but the issuance in February 1864 of the so-called “Pomeroy Circular,” criticising Lincoln, rendered impossible Chase's nomination and placed him in a delicate relationship with the President, wherefore on 22 February he again offered to resign and again was requested to remain. Finally in June 1864 another dispute arose over patronage in New York and though peacefully settled Chase, still sore because of Lincoln's renomination, decided once more to resign (29 June) and this time (30 June) Lincoln unexpectedly accepted it, appointing W. P. Fessenden (q.v.) as his successor.

Before his retirement from the Cabinet Chase had signified a desire to be chief justice of the Supreme Court and in spite of many objections Lincoln nominated him 6 Dec. 1664 to fill the post recently made vacant by the death of Chief Justice Taney (q.v.). He continued to advocate the universal enfranchisement of the negro, warmly sympathized with the work of the Freedmen's Bureau, and in 1866 became president of the “American Freedman's Union Commission,” a benevolent society intended to advance the work of civilization. He took little part in President Johnson's dispute with Congress regarding reconstruction, but privately opposed the readmission of any seceded State until it had granted suffrage to negroes; he drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, which, somewhat extended, was accepted and passed by Congress, and later used it in his dissent from the court's decision in the Slaughter House Cases (q.v.). Chase considered the President's military governments abnormal, and even after Johnson's proclamation declaring the war at an end (2 April 1866) he steadfastly refused to hold court in Virginia and North Carolina (which were included in his circuit) “until all possibility of claim that the judicial is subordinate to the military power is removed by express declaration from the President.” In June 1867, however, he assumed his functions at Raleigh. Chase dissented from the Court's decision in the Milligan (see Milligan Decision), Cummings and Garland cases and refused to sit in the trial of Jefferson Davis until late in 1868 when, however, the amnesty proclamation of 25 Dec 1868 permitted Davis' release and the case was not tried on its merits. Though considering the trial impolitic and unjust, Chase presided with calmness and good judgment over the impeachment of President Johnson in 1868. Prior to this time he had allowed his friends again to bring his name before the Republicans as a candidate for the Presidential nomination, but soon became convinced that he could not secure the Republican nomination and entirety changed his attitude toward that party, within a few weeks endeavoring to become the standard-bearer for the Democrats. However, he was not nominated and continued his work on the bench, writing numerous important decisions of the Court, such as that in the case of Texas vs. White, wherein he expounded the nature of the government as “an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States,” reversing his previous theory of State suicide and as he did also in the case of White vs. Hart in 1872, approving the method of reconstruction that had been adopted. He wrote the Court's decision in the case of Hepburn vs. Griswold and thus in 1869 reviewed judicially and construed the statutes which as an administrative officer he himself had set in motion only a few years previously. The Court decided that the Legal Tender Act was unconstitutional in so far as it compelled the acceptance of legal tender paper currency in payment of debts contracted before the statute. By the subsequent decisions in the legal tender cases (q.v.), however, Chase was reversed, the Court holding the act constitutional. These contests, were especially trying to Chase and the continual strain of the past few years began to affect him. In August 1870 he was stricken with paralysis but gradually improved, and though absent from the Court during the term of 1870-71 he sat during the terms of 1871-72 and 1872-73, preparing numerous opinions. He was well enough also in 1872 again to desire the presidential nomination, but in 1873 he began to fail rapidly, on May 6 suffered a second stroke while in New York and passed away there the next day.

Bibliography. — ‘Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase’ (in ‘Annual Report’ of the American Historical Association for 1902, Vol. II, pp. 11-527, Washington 1903); Hart, A. B., ‘Salmon Portland Chase’ (Boston 1899); Jones, F. R., ‘Salmon Portland Chase’ (Boston 1902); Pike, J. S., ‘Chief Justice Chase’ (New York 1873); Shuckers, J. W., ‘Life and Public Services of Salmon P. Chase’ (New York 1874); Warden, R. B., ‘An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase’ (Cincinnati 1874).

Irving E. Rines.