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  Name:  Salmon Portland Chase
  Born:  January 13, 1808
  Died:  May 7, 1873

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Chase, Salmon Portland (January 13, 1808 – May 7, 1873)

Salmon P. Chase was a U.S. senator (1849–1855; 1861), Ohio governor (1856–1859), U.S. Treasury secretary (1861–1864), and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice (1864–1873). 

He was born January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire, to Janette Ralston Chase and Ithamar Chase, a tavern–keeper and glassmaker. His father died when Salmon was nine, so the child was placed in the care of his uncle, Philander Chase, a well–known Episcopal bishop in Ohio and, later, founder of Kenyon College. After studying at the bishop’s school, followed by a year at Cincinnati College, young Chase returned to New Hampshire and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1826. He then moved to Washington, D. C., where he taught school and read law under William Wirt, the U.S. attorney general. Chase was admitted to the bar in 1829 and opened a law practice in Cincinnati. He won praise for his annotated collection of the Statutes of Ohio (3 vols.), which soon became the authoritative reference work in the state judicial system.  

In 1834, Chase defended abolitionist editor and activist James Birney for harboring a runaway slave. Chase became convinced that slavery was a sin and that blacks deserved equal civil rights with whites. He soon began defending the slaves themselves, causing his opponents to call him the “attorney general for fugitive slaves.”  Beginning in 1841, he associated with the Liberty Party, and then joined the Free–Soil Party in 1848.  In 1849, a coalition of Free–Soil and Democratic state legislators elected him to represent Ohio in the U. S. Senate (1849–1855).   

In the Senate, Chase vehemently condemned the fugitive slave bill that became part of the Compromise of 1850. In 1853, he sponsored legislation authorizing land surveys for possible transcontinental railroad routes.  The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the Western territories to slavery, provoked him to organize political opposition to it in Ohio, which soon became the new Republican Party.  As a Republican, he was elected governor of Ohio in 1855, and reelected in 1857. The office had limited authority, and he had to work with a Democratic legislature during his second term.  However, he was able to reform the state militia, which proved valuable during the Civil War. 

Chase’s political goal was to become president of the United States, but he failed to gain the Republican nomination in 1856, 1860, or 1864. The Ohio legislature decided to return him to the U. S. Senate in 1861, where he served just two days before resigning to become Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. During the Civil War, he faced the daunting task of financing the Union war effort and maintaining the nation’s solvency. He created a national banking system, issued fiat paper money (“greenbacks”), and established an Internal Revenue Division. 

Chase was a constant critic of Lincoln’s policies, inundating the president with unsolicited advice and proffering his resignation four times in fits of pique. In late 1863– early 1864, a group of radical Republicans turned to Chase as an alternative to Lincoln for presidency. However, the Chase “boom” collapsed within a few months.  In June 1864, the treasury secretary once again offered the president his resignation. That time, Lincoln accepted it. When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney became fatally ill in the late summer, Chase hoped for a promise from Lincoln for the appointment, but the president hesitated. Taking the hint, Chase began campaigning for the president’s reelection. Taney died in early October 1864, and two months later the reelected president appointed Chase to the coveted position, which he held until his death in 1873. 

In one of his first acts as chief justice, Chase authorized John Rock as the first African–American attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court. In March 1868, Chase presided over the removal trial of the impeached President Johnson in the U.S. Senate. The chief justice brought to the trial a much–needed air of dignity and impartiality. As the first impeachment trial of a president under the Constitution, Chase realized that the procedure would set important precedents. He insisted that the Senate conduct itself as a court of law, not as a legislative body. 

During his tenure as chief justice, Chase was unable to forge a solid majority and often found himself in dissent on such important cases as Ex parte Milligan (1866), Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), and the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). However, in Texas v. White (1869), he authored the majority opinion that ruled secession unconstitutional and reaffirmed the congressional right to guarantee republican government in the states. This decision essentially endorsed congressional control over the Reconstruction process. 

In 1868, Chase sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, but was passed over because of his stance in favor of voting rights for black men. Thereafter, he largely withdrew from partisan politics, although he opposed the reelection of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.  Salmon P. Chase died in New York City on May 7, 1873. 

Sources consulted:  Coles, Harry L., Jr., “Salmon P. Chase,” “The Governors of Ohio.”  The Ohio Historical Society (online); Niven, John.  Salmon P. Chase:  A Biography.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1995.


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