Salmon Portland Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was the ninth of eleven children born to Ithmar Chase and Janet (Ralston) Chase. When Ithmar Chase died in 1817, Janet Chase sent nine-year-old Salmon to live with his uncle, Philander Chase, in Worthington, Ohio. Philander, who was the Episcopal Bishop of the State of Ohio, operated a private school that Salmon attended. When Philander Chase became president of Cincinnati College, Salmon moved to Cincinnati with his uncle. Salmon attended Cincinnati College until his uncle left the school after one year. Salmon then returned to New Hampshire and enrolled at Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1826.
After graduating from Dartmouth, Chase moved to Washington, DC, where he taught school while he studied law with William Wirt, the Attorney General of the United States. After three years of study, Chase passed the bar exam and returned to Cincinnati where he established a law practice. As his practice flourished, he gained renown within Ohio’s legal community by editing The Statutes of Ohio and of the Northwestern Territory, a three-volume reference work that benefited government officials and fellow attorneys.
After spending several years focused on establishing his law practice, Chase married the first of his three wives, Catherine Jane Garniss, on March 4, 1834. On December 1, 1835, Catherine died giving birth to their daughter who also died the next year.
Following four years of mourning, Chase remarried on September 26, 1839. His second wife, Eliza Ann Smith, gave birth to three daughters before passing away from consumption on September 29, 1845. Only one of the three daughters (Katherine Jane “Kate” Chase) survived infancy.
Chase married his third wife, Sarah Bella Dunlop Ludlow, on November 6, 1846. That marriage produced two daughters, only one of whom lived to adulthood (Janet Ralston Chase). Tragically, the third Mrs. Chase also died of tuberculosis on January 13, 1852. Thereafter, Chase remained a widower for the rest of his life.
Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves
Following the death of his first wife, Chase rededicated himself to his religion, and he became engaged in the temperance and abolitionist movements. Believing that slavery was sinful and that blacks should enjoy the same rights as whites, Chase began representing fugitive slaves trying to escape prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. His actions earned him the scorn of slavery supporters who mockingly branded him the Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves. Unflinching in his principles, Chase proudly adopted the derogatory nickname.
Like many lawyers of his era, Chase had burning political aspirations. Initially a member of the Whig Party, Chase won a seat on Cincinnati’s city council in 1840. A year later, he changed his allegiance to the newly formed, anti-slavery Liberty Party. In 1844 and 1848, Chase actively campaigned for the party’s presidential candidate, James Birney, one of his former clients. In 1846, Chase finished a distant last out of four candidates in his quest to represent Ohio’s First District in the U.S. Congress.
In 1848, Chase supported the Liberty Party’s alliance with the “Barnburner” faction of New York Democrats to form the Free Soil Party. For the next decade, he served as a state and national leader for the party founded on the ideals of “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men.” Through his Free Soil contacts, Chase gradually emerged as a leading voice of abolitionists in Ohio.
United States Senator
On November 7, 1848, a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats in the Ohio General Assembly elected Chase to a seat in the United States Senate. His selection made him one of the first abolitionist senators not affiliated with either of the two major parties. Chase served as a U.S. senator from March 4, 1849, to March 3, 1855, during the Thirty-first through the Thirty-Third Congresses. Following the enactment of the Compromise of 1850, Senator Chase guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”
When the Fusionist Party began to coalesce in Ohio after the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Chase became an early member. On July 13, 1855, a coalition of Fusionists, which included Free Soil Whigs, Independent Democrats, and nativists (also known as Know-Nothings), gathered in Columbus and nominated Chase as their candidate for governor. Subsequently, the Fusionists morphed into the Republican Party in Ohio. In the general election on October 9, 1855, Chase won only 48.59% of the vote, but it was enough to hold off his closest challenger, incumbent Democrat William Medill who received 43.37%. Chase’s victory made him Ohio’s first Republican governor. Re-elected in 1857 by a margin of only 1,503 votes out of 319,633 votes cast (.46%) over Democrat Henry B. Payne, Chase served as Ohio’s governor from January 14, 1856, to January 9, 1860.
When Chase left office in 1860, he had higher political ambitions. When the Republican National Convention opened in Chicago on May 16, 1860, Chase had hopes of upsetting the pre-convention favorite, U.S. Senator William Seward from New York, and receiving the party’s presidential nomination. As events turned out, both men’s views on abolition proved too radical for party conservatives who selected the more moderate Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate on the fourth ballot. Chase reached his high-water mark on the first ballot when he received just forty-nine of the 465 votes cast.
Secretary of the Treasury
Disappointed, Chase returned to Ohio where the Republican legislature elected him to another term in the U.S. Senate on November 6, 1860. Sworn in as a member of the Thirty-seventh Congress on March 4, 1861, Chase held his seat only two days before resigning to accept an appointment by President Lincoln as U. S. Secretary of the Treasury, which the Senate confirmed on March 5.
Serving as Secretary of the Treasury throughout most of the Civil War, Chase successfully managed the daunting task of maintaining the nation’s solvency while simultaneously financing the Union war effort. To accomplish these objectives, he convinced Congress to enact a series of initiatives crafted and proposed by the Treasury Department.
- The Revenue Acts of 1861 and 1862 established and implemented the nation’s first income tax. It also created the office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the forerunner of the Internal Revenue Service.
- The Legal Tender Acts of 1862, 1863, and 1864 authorized the federal government to issue increasingly larger quantities of paper notes, not backed by gold or silver. The bills also mandated the acceptance of the notes, commonly known as greenbacks, as legal tender.
- The Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864 stabilized banking in the U.S. by establishing a national banking system and authorizing the federal government to sell war bonds to help finance the war effort.
The acts produced their intended effects; the Union endured and the federal government remained afloat (if not technically solvent) despite an unprecedented increase in the national debt from $77 million in 1860 to $2.7 billion in 1865.
Relationship with President Lincoln
Chase’s successes in financing the war were in stark contrast to his rocky relationships with the President and other cabinet members. The secretary was a meddler who was not reluctant to offer Lincoln unsolicited advice beyond his realm of authority. As an ardent abolitionist, Chase was not hesitant to support or join the chorus of critics among the Radical element of the Republican Party who disapproved of Lincoln’s seemingly lenient policies regarding the South.
Chase’s problems with Lincoln stemmed from two sources. First, the urbane secretary considered himself to be more qualified to occupy the White House than the backwoods lawyer from Illinois. Second, Chase had long possessed a burning desire to be President of the United States. After being snubbed by the delegates at the 1860 Republican National Convention, he let his ambition get the better of him in 1864. When news accounts exposed Chase’s involvement in a clandestine and clumsy attempt to wrest the 1864 Republican presidential nomination from Lincoln, the President could tolerate no more.
The final break came in late June 1864. A dispute between the two men over a patronage appointment prompted Chase to submit a letter of resignation from his cabinet position on June 29. Lincoln had dismissed several previous threats by Chase to resign, but he had reached the limits of his patience. Lucius E. Chittenden, the register of the treasury, later recalled the President’s response when he implored him to reject Chase’s resignation:
I will tell you how it is with Chase. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to fall into a bad habit. Chase has fallen into two bad habits. One is that to which I have often referred. He thinks he has become indispensable to the country; that his intimate friends know it, and he cannot comprehend why the country does not understand it. He also thinks he ought to be President; he has no doubt whatever about that. It is inconceivable to him why people have not found it out, why they don’t as one man rise up and say so.
Lincoln went on to declare that:
He is either determined to annoy me, or that I should pat him on the shoulder and coax him to stay. I don’t think I ought to do it. I will not do it.
On June 30, 1864, the President informed Chase that:
Your resignation of the office of Secretary of the Treasury, sent me yesterday, is accepted. Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity I have nothing to unsay; and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relations, which it seems cannot be overcome or longer sustained, consistently with the public service.
Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Despite Chase’s faults, Lincoln was not blind to his abilities; nor was he one to hold a grudge. Perhaps to appease Chase’s allies in the Radical wing of the Republican Party, on December 4, 1864, Lincoln nominated Chase to the post of Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed the appointment the same day. Chase took his oath of office on December 15, 1864, and served as Chief Justice until his death on May 7, 1873.
During the eight-and-one-half years of Chase’s leadership, the Supreme Court ruled on many cases focused on the constitutionality of Reconstruction policies. He also presided over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Second Presidential Bid
Despite holding the highest position in the nation’s judicial system, Chase still yearned for the presidency. After switching allegiances to the Democratic Party, he made an ineffective bid to gain the party’s presidential nomination in 1868.
Health problems plagued Chase during the last three years of his life. In 1870, he suffered a paralytic stroke, soon followed by a heart attack. He returned to the bench in 1871, in poor health. Following the court’s adjournment in May 1873, Chase traveled to New York to visit his family. During the night of May 5-6, he suffered a stroke while sleeping at the home of his daughter, Janet “Nettie” Hoyt, on West Thirty-Third Street. After lingering for a day, he passed at 10:30 a.m. on May 7, 1873.
Following funeral services at the Episcopal Church of St. George in New York City, Chase’s body was transported to Washington, DC, where it was laid in state in the Old Senate Chambers of the Capitol Building. Chase was first buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. In 1886, his remains were re-interred in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio, alongside his three wives and five children.