Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Salmon Portland Chase

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CHASE, Salmon Portland (1808-1873), an American statesman, was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, on the 13th of January 1808. After graduating with distinction at Dartmouth College, at the age of eighteen he opened a classical school at Washington, and commenced the study of law under William Wirt. In 1830 he was admitted to the bar; and he soon after gained for himself considerable reputation by a compilation of the statutes of Ohio. Throughout his whole career he was a consistent and vigorous opponent of slavery. From the first he was willing to risk his hopes of professional success by undertaking the defence of runaway slaves or of those who assisted their escape; and he boldly argued that slavery was merely an institution of the individual States, to which the national Government could not extend its sanction. He took a prominent part in the anti-slavery convention which met at Columbus in 1841, in the first “National Liberty Convention” of 1843, in the “Southern and Western Liberty Convention” of 1845, and in the second “National Liberty Convention” of 1847. He also presided over the “National Convention” of 1848, which nominated Van Buren for president and Adams for vice-president. In 1849 he became member of the senate; and in 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio, in which position he was so popular that he was re-elected, two years after, by an extraordinarily large number of votes. He was also three times nominated for the presidency, though he never attained that dignity.

On the accession of Lincoln to the presidency, in March 1861, Chase became secretary of the treasury; and he fulfilled the duties of this most important and difficult post with the greatest energy till June 1864. Still, notwithstanding his ability and zeal, it cannot be said that the measures he adopted were the best even in the extremely difficult circumstances in which he was placed. Though he appears to have apprehended some of the evil consequences likely to arise from the creation of inconvertible notes, he argues that their issue was necessary on the ground that it would increase the loanable capital of the country, while, in fact, employed as it was by Government in defraying expenses, it could have no such effect. At first Chase contemplated raising a large sum by direct taxation; but this course Congress refused to pursue. He was forced, therefore, to resort to a considerable increase of the taxes on imports, to issues of an inconvertible paper currency, and to enormous loans, which were contracted upon unnecessarily expensive terms. The interest was, in reality, about double its nominal amount, owing to the fact that it was paid in gold; and, beside this, a considerable loss was sustained through the arrangement by which the debt contracted in depreciated paper was discharged in coin.

It was under his management that Congress passed the Banking Law of February 1863, which, as amended in June 1864, is still in force (see Banking, vol. iii. p. 310). It was at that time useful in two ways; for it procured for the Government, in its necessity, a considerable loan from the banks, and it replaced the notes of the banks, which had lost their credit through frequent failures, by notes which possessed the Government guarantee. Its great recommendation at present is that it secures the trustworthiness of the note currency.

In December of the year in which he resigned the secretaryship of the treasury, Chase was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and in this capacity he had to undertake the responsibility of superintending the trial of President Johnson. But his health was now broken, and his old activity was no longer possible. In June 1870 he suffered a shock of apoplexy, and on May 7, 1873, he died at New York.