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.
Salmon Portland Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire, to Ithamar and Janette Chase. Salmon 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 and Salmon 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, D C., where he studied law with Attorney General William Wirt.
After being admitted to the bar, 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, a unanimous Court rejected Chase’s argument. Nevertheless, his representation of clients such as Van Zandt earned for him the distinguished title of “Attorney General for the Runaway Negroes.” Though intended as an insult, the label pleased Chase, who declared himself happy with the office “because there were neither fees nor salary connected with it.”
During the 1840s, Chase migrated from the Whigs to the Liberty" Party and then to the Free- Soil Party in 1848. The following year Chase’s new party was able to have one of its own elected by the Ohio legislature as U.S. senator in return for supporting a Democratic reorganization of the state legislature. Chase became the new senator from Ohio as a result of this compromise. 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. 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, 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: Chase as secretary of the treasury and Seward as secretary' of state, with Chase abandoning his new seat in the Senate to join Lincoln’s administration. The Civil War dominated the attention of Lincoln’s cabinet, and Chase played a significant role in policy decisions af fecting the war because of the weakness of Lincoln’s original secretary' of war, Simon Cameron. To Chase’s lot also fell the task of financing die 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. 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 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 Chase’s 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 recon-sideration 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 Hepburn and upheld the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act.
Radical Republicans disapproved of Lincoln’s moderate views on the question of slavery and proposed Salmon P. Chase as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 1864. When public news of this candidacy surfaced, Chase offered to resign, but 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 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 Chase used the threat following a disagreement with Lincoln concerning a political appointment, the president surprised Chase by accepting his resignation. After Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, though, he turned to 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 Chase to be the Court’s new chief justice; the Senate confirmed the appointment the same day. Lincoln seems to have realized early on that 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 Johnson, the Senate convened in March 1868 to try the president on the impeachment charges. Chase, as chief justice, presided over the impeachment trial, l'o the consternation of Radical Republicans eager to remove the president from office, Chase insisted on a fair process which, in the end, failed to approve the articles of impeachment by a single vote. Chase’s 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. He died five years later, on May 7, 1873, on a visit to one of his daughters living in New York.
Such leadership as Salmon P. Chase was able to exercise on the Supreme Court expressed itself chiefly by avoiding the decision of controversial cases. The years after the war, especially, were politically perilous times for a Court whose institutional prestige had suffered grievously because of its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). During President Andrew Johnson’s ad-ministration, the executive branch and Congress battled one another over the reconstruction of the Southern states. In the cases that reached the Court concerning Reconstruction policy, Chase generally preferred to defer to congressional and state legislative decision-making rather than to risk the Court’s institutional prestige in a clash with these legislative branches. Thus, he joined in the result of Ex parte Milligan (1866), which freed a Confederate sympathizer convicted of treason by a military court, but declined to join the majority opinion by Justice David Davis, which repudiated any power of Congress to allow military trials of civilians in areas where civilian courts were open. Chase also upheld the retroactive loyalty oaths struck down by a majority of the Court in Cummings v. Missouri (1867) and Ex parte Garland (1867). In these cases he could not marshal other justices to adopt his stance of deference toward legislation, but occasionally he proved successful in directing the Court down the path of least confrontation with other branches of government. Thus, when Congress attempted to limit the Court’s power to hear cases brought by prisoners convicted before military tribunals, Chase led his brethren in deferring to this congressional judgment in the unanimous Ex parte McCardle (1867) decision. For some historical observers, 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 Chase’s own political ambitions.
He also 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.