Salmon Portland Chase was born in Cornish Township, New Hampshire, the son of a tavern keeper and minor public official. Following the death of his father, Chase lived with an uncle, Philander Chase, the Episcopal bishop of Ohio. In 1826, he graduated from Dartmouth College and later studied law in Washington under the respected U.S. attorney general, William Wirt.
Chase established a law practice in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1830. He defended runaway slaves and those who aided them (see Underground Railroad); he also wrote and lectured on abolitionism and other reform topics. Chase’s initial political allegiance was to the Whig party, but in 1848 he assisted in the establishment of the Free-Soil Party.
From 1849 to 1855, Chase served in the U.S. Senate where he was an outspoken critic of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Joining the new Republican Party, Chase was elected governor of Ohio in 1855. His home state returned him to the Senate in 1861, but he soon resigned to accept a position in Lincoln’s cabinet.
Chase actively pursued the presidency. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1856 and again in 1860, when was considered a frontrunner with William H. Seward. In the latter instance, he released his delegates to help assure Lincoln’s nomination on the third ballot.
In 1864, Chase maneuvered behind the scenes, hoping to win the nomination at Lincoln’s expense. Even as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chase hoped to engineer his way to the presidency in 1868 and 1872.
As Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, Chase performed ably in guiding wartime financing. However, he clashed repeatedly with the president, pushing him to make the end of slavery a major war aim; Lincoln resisted. Chase also was critical of the military abilities of Irvin McDowell, Henry Halleck and George B. McClellan.
In mid-1864, the president accepted Chase’s resignation, but by year’s end he was appointed Chief Justice. Though not particularly judicial in temperament, Chase performed well. He presided over the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson with fairness and, while often in the minority, sought to protect the former slaves under the 13th and 14th amendments.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Salmon P. Chase.
Regarding Civil Rights before the Civil War
True democracy makes no enquiry about the color of skin, or the place of nativity, whereever it sees man, it recognizes a being endowed by his Creator with original inalienable rights.
Congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens and all unable to take its prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of despotic military governments for the States and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions; no classes excluded from suffrage; and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and of sincere attachment to the constitutional Government of the United States.
Letter to August Belmont, 1868