Salmon Portland Chase ranks among the most significant American political and legal figures of the nineteenth century. Born in 1808 in New Hampshire and later raised by an Episcopal bishop uncle in Ohio, Chase graduated from Dartmouth College in 1826. Deeply affected by a religious revival that swept through campus during his day, Chase nevertheless chose a career in law over a calling to the ministry. After studying with the prominent attorney William Wirt in Washington, DC, Chase set up a law practice in Cincinnati.
Although Chase's evangelical zeal was tempered by a commitment to law and order, events increasingly drew him to antislavery circles. He began his career as a conservative advocate of black colonization, but as he witnessed the harassment of abolitionists in Cincinnati, the outraged advocate moved toward the radical end of the antislavery spectrum. By the mid-1840s he joined the antislavery Liberty Party and began arguing high-profile cases on behalf of fugitive slaves. His most famous argument came in Jones v. Van Zandt, 46 U.S. 215 ( 1847 ), in which he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 before the US Supreme Court. Chase soon moderated his public position—siding with the Free Soilers, who focused on halting the spread of slavery in federal territories, rather than radical antislavery advocates—which moved him closer to the northern mainstream. In 1849 he won election to the US Senate from Ohio, where he took the lead in opposing the proslavery Kansas–Nebraska Act, and he later served two terms as governor of the state before again winning a Senate seat in 1859.
In 1860 Chase sought the Republican nomination for president. Although he lost to Abraham Lincoln, Chase's antislavery constituency made him difficult to ignore, and the new president appointed him secretary of the Treasury. A skilled administrator, Chase pushed for revolutionary legislation that provided the financial foundation for the Union effort in the Civil War. The printing of unbacked paper currency, the imposition of a host of new taxes (including the first income tax), and the establishment of a centralized national banking system helped fund the war while preserving investor confidence. Apart from overseeing the Treasury, Chase proved to be a committed antislavery voice within the administration. His self-righteousness and ambition at times strained his relationship with Lincoln, but when Chief Justice Roger Taney died in 1864, Lincoln appointed Chase to the position. In doing so, Lincoln removed a troublesome presence from the cabinet while also ensuring the long-term success of the administration's antislavery agenda.
Criticized by contemporaries and historians alike for his unseemly ambitiousness ( when the Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868, Chase sought the Democratic nomination, despite his judicial duties and his Republican politics ), Chase remains a key figure of the mid-nineteenth century. His serious moralism drove his work as an antislavery lawyer, while a pragmatic nationalism marked his work as Treasury secretary and chief justice. He died in 1873.
SEE ALSO Abolition Movement ; Civil War Amendments ; Lincoln, Abraham ; Slaughter-House Cases, The ; Slavery ; Supreme Court of the United States .
Blue, Frederick J. Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1987.
Niven, John. Salmon P. Chase: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Timothy S. Huebner