Salmon Portland Chase was an American politician and jurist who served as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States from 1864 to 1873. Earlier in his career, Chase was the 23rd Governor of Ohio and a U.S. Senator from Ohio prior to service under Abraham Lincoln as the 25th Secretary of the Treasury. He is commonly known as Salmon P. Chase.
Mr. Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire, United States, to Ithamar and Janette Chase. Salmon Chase was just nine years old when his father died, and three years later he moved to the farm of Philander Chase, one of his uncles and the first Episcopalian bishop of Ohio.
Philander Chase subsequently became the president of Cincinnati College (now the University of Cincinnati) and Salmon Chase spent a year studying there. He showed significant academic promise, and his family sent him to Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1826. He eventually moved to Washington, District of Columbia, where he studied law with Attorney General William Wirt.
After being admitted to the bar, Mr. Chase returned to Ohio and established a law practice in Cincinnati. He supplemented this legal occupation by lecturing and writing.
By the second half of the 1830s, Salmon Chase had put his legal skills to use in representing abolitionists. In 1837 he represented James G. Birney, who would become the Liberal Party candidate for president in 1840 and 1844, on the charge of harboring a fugitive slave. Several years later he defended John Van Zandt, a conductor of the Underground Railroad. With William Seward as co-counsel, Chase took the case to the Supreme Court, where he argued that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was unconstitutional. In Jones v. Van Zandt (1847), however, an unanimous Court rejected Mr. Chase’s argument. Nevertheless, his representation of clients such as Mr. Van Zandt earned for him the distinguished title of "Attorney General for the Runaway Negroes." Though intended as an insult, the label pleased Salmon Chase, who declared himself happy with the office "because there were neither fees nor salary connected with it."
Mr. Chase helped to establish the Republican party in 1854 and the next year won election on the Republican ticket as governor of Ohio. He served as governor for two terms, from 1855 to 1859, and then was reelected to the U.S. Senate. At the Republican National Convention of 1860, Salmon Chase arrived as a front-runner along with William Seward, only to see the nomination and the presidential election itself go to the lesser-known Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln.
After the election, President Lincoln appointed his chief Republican rivals to serve in his cabinet: Mr. Chase as secretary of the treasury and Seward as secretary of state, with Salmon Chase abandoning his new seat in the Senate to join Abraham Lincoln’s administration. The Civil War dominated the attention of President Lincoln’s cabinet, and Mr. Chase played a significant role in policy decisions affecting the war because of the weakness of Mr. Lincoln’s original secretary of war, Simon Cameron. To Salmon Chase’s lot also fell the task of financing the war effort. Financial necessity eventually drove the administration to issue paper money not redeemable in species, currency commonly referred to as greenbacks.
Act of 1862, creditors were forced to accept greenbacks in payment of any debt. Salmon Chase appears to have been reluctant to adopt this course, but he nevertheless administered the printing of $450 million in greenbacks. After the war was over, though, and Mr. Chase had become chief justice of the Supreme Court, he reverted to his original disapproval of government use of greenbacks and led a slim majority of the Court in declaring them unconstitutional in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870). This slender victory for his views occurred, however, at a time when the Supreme Court had only seven members. President Ulysses S. Grant promptly appointed two new justices to the Court and pressed for reconsideration of the Legal Tender Act. His new appointees joined with the original three dissenters in the Hepburn case to produce a new 5-41 majority that overruled Mr. Hepburn and upheld the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act.
Radical Republicans disapproved of Abraham Lincoln’s moderate views on the question of slavery and proposed Salmon Chase as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 1864. When public news of this candidacy surfaced, Mr. Chase offered to resign, but President Lincoln - who captured the party’s nomination a second time - declined to accept his offer. The threat of resignation seems to have been one of Salmon Chase’s preferred maneuvers while he served as treasury secretary. In the summer of 1864, however, he finally resorted to it once too often. After he used the threat following a disagreement with Mr. Lincoln concerning a political appointment, the president surprised Salmon Chase by accepting his resignation. After Mr. Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, though, he turned to Mr. Chase once again, this time to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in December of that year. On December 6, 1864, the president nominated Salmon Chase to be the Court’s new chief justice; the Senate confirmed the appointment the same day. Abraham Lincoln seems to have realized early on that Mr. Chase might not prove effective as chief justice: "If he keeps on with the notion that he is destined to be President of the United States, and which in my judgment he will never be, he will never acquire ... fame and usefulness as Chief Justice."
After the House of Representatives impeached Mr. Johnson, the Senate convened in March 1868 to try the president on the impeachment charges. Salmon Chase, as chief justice, presided over the impeachment trial, to the consternation of Radical Republicans eager to remove the president from office, Mr. Chase insisted on a fair process which, in the end, failed to approve the articles of impeachment by a single vote. His bearing during the impeachment trial secured him a new measure of general public approval on which he immediately tried to capitalize by seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1868. Once again, though, this final political prize eluded him.
During the 1840s, Mr. Chase migrated from the Whigs to the Liberty Party and then to the Free-Soil Party in 1848. In Washington he quickly made a name for himself as a fierce opponent of slavery, voting against both the Compromise of 1850 for its implicit support of fugitive slave law and the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854. He joined the ranks of the Republican Party, helping establish it, in 1854, and the Democratic Party in 1868.
Such leadership as Salmon P. Chase was able to exercise on the Supreme Court expressed itself chiefly by avoiding the decision of controversial cases. For some historical observers, Mr. Chase’s willingness to avoid political confrontations with other branches of government was a sign of wisdom. For many others, though, these avoidances amounted to judicial timidness and an unseemly preoccupation with the impact of decisions on his own political ambitions.
Mr. Chase was married, though his career as a husband proved tragic. His first wife, Katherine Jane Garniss, died within two years of their marriage; his second, Eliza Ann Smith, died after six years of marriage, leaving him to raise their daughter, Kate, who would become her father’s closest political confident. Finally, his third wife, Sarah, died of tuberculosis after having given birth to another daughter.