1773 portrait of Samuel Chase by Charles Willson Peale hangs in the Museum of the Maryland Historical Society.
Samuel Chase received his early education from his father. In 1759, at the age of 18, Samuel Chase was apprenticed to study law at the office of John Hammand and John Hall in Annapolis, Maryland. He was admitted to practice in 1763.
In 1764 Mr. Chase was elected to the Maryland legislature, beginning a tenure of political office that lasted 20 years. Over the ensuing decade, he was borne along by the revolutionary currents that began to wash across the colonies. Parliament’s infamous Stamp Act of 1765 prompted him to join the Sons of Liberty, and he was a relentless agitator against the Stamp Act and other British policies.
Nevertheless, with the onset of revolution, Samuel Chase earned recognition as a leader, and Maryland sent him to serve in the First and Second Continental Congresses. When the other revolutionary leaders signed their names to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he arrived in time to add his own signature to the distinguished list after first having to hurry back to Maryland to persuade the assembly to support independence.
Mr. Chase threw himself into the work of the Continental Congress, serving on 21 committees in 1777 and 30 in 1778. He also threw himself into the more questionable project of trying, with a few others, to corner the market on flour with information he obtained as a member of the Congress.
For this conduct Alexander Hamilton, writing as "Publius," excoriated him in the New York Journal and Maryland removed him as one of its delegates to the Continental Congress for two years. Throughout the 1780s, Mr. Chase pursued a variety of business ventures and these, though not so tainted with the spectacle of self-dealing as his flour investments, nevertheless fared no better financially.
By the close of the decade, Samuel Chase was busy seeking legislative relief for his financial woes. In the 1786-1787 term of the Maryland Assembly, he pressed unsuccessfully as a state legislator for paper money and debt relief. When these proposals failed to pass, he was forced to petition the Maryland legislature to declare him bankrupt in 1789.
During the same period, Mr. Chase took on the first of the judicial robes that would clothe him for the rest of his life. In 1788 he became a judge of the Baltimore Criminal Court; in 1791 he added to this position a seat on the General Court of Maryland as chief judge. The same controversy that had gone in his career as a legislator also followed him onto the bench, however. At least some in the Maryland Assembly found his dual judgeships objectionable and his judicial manner imperious, and they sought, unsuccessfully, to oust him from his posts. Failing in this effort, Mr. Chase’s opponents were left with name-calling, and the judge’s normal red-faced countenance earned him the epithet "Old Bacon Face." On February 4, 1796, Mr. Chase formally took his seat on the Court.
Prompted by the president, the House of Representatives appointed a committee to consider whether impeachment of Justice Mr. Chase was appropriate. The committee recommended impeachment, and the House concurred on March 12, 1804, by a vote of 73 to 32, for warding eight articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial. They detailed a variety of alleged misconduct in Sedition Act trials, the treason trial of Fries, and the Baltimore grand jury charge. The following year, trial commenced in the Senate on January 3,1805, with Samuel Chase represented by an exceptional team of influential lawyers. In the end, votes taken on March 1, 1805, failed to produce a two-thirds majority on any of the articles of impeachment. The article complaining of Mr. Chase’s Baltimore grand jury charge garnered the most votes - 19 of 34 - but even this vote fell short of the needed total. Chastened, but not removed from office, Mr. Chase’s remaining years on the Supreme Court played out quietly. Chief Justice John Marshall assumed the task of writing opinions for the Court in all its major decisions; thus, the work of Chase and the other associate justices fell under Marshall’s substantial shadow. Affliction with gout also caused Chase to miss much of the work of the Court during his final years.
Chase was a relentless agitator against the Stamp Act and other British policies. When the Philadelphia Convention proposed the Constitution in 1787, Samuel Chase quickly made himself known as an opponent of the proposed system. He charged that the Constitution would erect a government of the wealthy classes at the expenses of farmers and artisans. His objections were sufficiently weighty to prompt Mr. Chase to vote against ratification at the Maryland convention. But when the Constitution was ratified in spite of his opposition, Samuel Chase quickly became a Federalist, at least partially if not wholly for the pragmatic reason that he wished to obtain an appointment in the new government. Though his past improprieties and his agitation against the Constitution might have made any such prospect exceedingly dim, Mr. Chase had at least two factors in his favor. First, he had supported George Washington in the Continental Congress and thus earned the political gratitude of the future first president. Second, President Washington’s secretary of war, James McHenry, himself a leading Federalist from Maryland, urged Mr. Washington to find a post for Samuel Chase. Though George Washington seems to have eyed Mr. Chase briefly for the position of attorney general, he ultimately nominated him on January 26, 1796, to the seat on the Supreme Court recently vacated by James Blair of Virginia.
Beginning in 1799, however, Justice Mr. Chase’s actions while presiding over circuit court proceedings earned the abiding ire of Republicans. The passage of the Sedition Act of 1798 had made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious" attacks on government officials. Federalist prosecutors soon wielded the Sedition Act against critics of the Adams administration, and Samuel Chase showed himself a vigorous ally of prosecutions brought under the act. In Philadelpfiia, Mr. Chase presided over the notorious treason trial of John Fries, and he conducted himself in such an offensive manner that Philadelphia lawyers, after investigating the proceedings, refused to appear before him on his further circuit visits to the city. Some of the opposition to Samuel Chase undoubtedly sprang from serious differences of opinion about the legality of the Sedition Act prosecutions and about the nature of federal power generally.
Although Samuel Chase may have begun his political life with a spirit of popular democracy, by the close of the 18th century he had metamorphosed into a staunch Federalist, appalled at the ascendancy of Jeffersonian Republicanism and dedicated to protecting the nation from the heresies of this party.
"The jury has the right to determine both the law and the facts."
"Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people."
"Summon me, then; I will be the posse comitatus; I will take them to jail."
"By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty."
"I cannot subscribe to the omnipotence of a State legislature."
Samuel Chase’s defenders, then and now, have seen him as the victim of the politically motivated attacks of those who could not abide his high Federalist principles. His detractors - and these have been many - have seen rather an imperious and abusive justice, wholly lacking in judicial temperament. Whichever verdict is more nearly correct, it is fair to say that Mr. Chase brought no great credit to the Supreme Court during his tenure as an associate justice. If he contributed to it development at all, it was an exemplar of the road that the Supreme Court wisely chose not to follow.
Quotes from others about the person
Federal District Judge Richard Peters of Pennsylvania: "I never sat with him without pain, as he was forever getting into some intemperate and unnecessary squabble."
Chase married Ann Baldwin in 1762. Sometime during the period of 1780s his wife died, having given birth to seven children. In 1784 Samuel Chase married Hannah Kitty of England.