Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) was a U.S. senator, governor of Ohio and Supreme Court chief justice who served as the U.S. secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War (1861-65). A staunch abolitionist, Chase spent his early career as a lawyer and became known as “the attorney general for fugitive slaves” for his frequent defenses of runaway blacks. After representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate from 1849 to 1855, Chase went on to serve as the state’s governor from 1855 to 1859. He made a failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 before serving as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the Treasury. Chase was responsible for managing the finances of the Union during the Civil War and was instrumental in establishing the national banking system and issuing paper currency. Chase resigned his position in June 1864 and was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court later that year. He would serve until his death in 1873 at the age of 65.
Salmon P. Chase: Early Life
Salmon Portland Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, on January 13, 1808. Following his father’s death in 1817, Chase was sent to Ohio to live with his uncle Philander Chase, an Episcopalian bishop. Chase attended Cincinnati College starting in 1822 and then Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1826. After leaving Dartmouth he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a teacher before studying law under U.S. Attorney General William Wirt.
Chase moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1830 and began practicing law. During this time he helped establish his legal reputation by writing a multi-volume history of Ohio laws and statutes. In 1834 he married Catherine Garniss, the daughter of a local businessman. The brief marriage ended with her death in 1835. Chase married Eliza Smith in 1839, and the two would have three children before her death in 1845. Chase would marry his third wife, Sarah Bella Dunlap Ludlow, in 1846.
In 1837 Chase argued before the Ohio Supreme Court in defense of James G. Birney, an abolitionist charged with harboring an escaped slave. His eloquent indictments of the Fugitive Slave Law were later reprinted in newspapers and widely circulated. Chase gained further acclaim when he defended the abolitionist John Van Zandt before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1847. While Chase lost the case, his impassioned defenses of Van Zandt and other abolitionists and runaway blacks eventually earned him the nickname “the attorney general for escaped slaves.”
Salmon P. Chase: U.S. Senate and Governor of Ohio
Chase first entered politics in 1840, when he served in the Cincinnati city council. He later led the abolitionist Liberty Party and was instrumental in combining it with antislavery Democrats and Whigs to form the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western U.S. territories. Chase coined the party’s famous motto: “Free Soil, Free Labor and Free Men.”
In 1849 Chase won a seat in the U.S. Senate on the Free Soil ticket, though he later classified himself as an “Independent Democrat.” While in Congress Chase was a prominent opponent of the Compromise of 1850, which introduced new fugitive slave laws. He was also vocal in his criticisms of 1854’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the Kansas and Nebraska territories to choose whether they would allow slavery instead of banning the practice outright.
After leaving the U.S. Senate Chase became aligned with the newly formed Republican Party, and in 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio on the Republican ticket. As governor he helped guide a resolution opposing the Fugitive Slave Law through the state legislature.
Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury
In 1860 Chase attempted to run for president but lost the Republican nomination to Abraham Lincoln. He was elected to the U.S. Senate that same year but resigned in March 1861 after being appointed secretary of the Treasury in Lincoln’s new administration.
With the start of the Civil War (1861-65), Chase became responsible for managing the nation’s finances during the massive Union war effort. Among other measures, he took out a $50 million loan from private bankers, instituted new taxes, increased the number of treasury agents and helped push for the establishment of what would become the Internal Revenue Service.
Although he disagreed with the concept on principle, in 1862 Chase helped pass the first Legal Tender Act, which allowed the government to issue paper money as payment for debts. The U.S. government quickly printed $150 million in “greenbacks,” and Chase became famous after he saw to it that his own face appeared on the dollar bill. In order to ensure that the banking community accepted the new currency, Chase conceived the National Banking Act, which was voted into law in February 1863. Considered one of Chase’s finest accomplishments, this measure created a national bank and a single currency, enabling the federal government to issue millions of dollars in bonds to help fund the war effort.
While Chase reacted ably to the massive funds shortage presented by the Civil War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln was often strained. Chase believed himself the superior leader and was resentful over having lost the 1860 Republican nomination to Lincoln. During his tenure as secretary of the Treasury, Chase threatened Lincoln with his resignation three times in order to force the President’s hand on political appointments. When Chase offered his resignation for the fourth time in June 1864, Lincoln chose to accept. His bluff called, Chase reluctantly stepped down as secretary of the Treasury that same month.
Salmon P. Chase: Supreme Court and Later Life
Despite their personal differences, Lincoln recognized Chase’s skill as a scholar and lawyer. Following the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney, he appointed Chase to serve as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in November 1864. Chase would serve on the court until his death, presiding over many of the most important legal matters of the Reconstruction era. Chase was noted for his even-handed supervision of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and ruled in Mississippi v. Johnson that the president was within his rights to enforce Reconstruction measures in the South. Chase was also instrumental in seeing John Rock become the first black attorney to argue before the Supreme Court.
Chase later presided over several other landmark cases including Texas v. White, in which the court ruled that secession was illegal and the Union indestructible. In the case of Hepburn v. Griswold, Chase ruled that the Legal Tender Acts—ironically instituted during his tenure as secretary of the Treasury—were in fact unconstitutional.
During his time on the Supreme Court Chase frequently flirted with making another run at the presidency. He was unsuccessful in an 1868 attempt to win the Democratic nomination and also failed in a bid to run as the Liberal Republican candidate in 1872. Chase died in 1873 at the age of 65. The Chase National Bank, founded in 1877, was named in his honor.