Salmon Chase

Salmon Chase

Salmon Portland Chase was born in New Hampshire on 13th January, 1808. After his father died in 1817, he lived with his uncle, Philander Chase, the Bishop of Ohio. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1826 he worked briefly as a school teacher in Washington.

In 1830 Chase moved to Cincinnati where he established himself as a lawyer. A member of the Anti-Slavery Society, Chase defended so many re-captured slaves and became known as the "attorney general for runaway negroes". He also provided free legal advice for those caught working for the Underground Railroad.

Chase was originally a member of the Whig Party but joined the Liberty Party in 1841. However, in August 1848, Chase and other members of the party joined with anti-slavery members of the Whig Party to form the Free-Soil Party. The following year Chase was elected to the United States Senate. Together with Joshua Giddings, Chase was seen as the leader of the anti-slavery group in Congress and played an important role in the campaign against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1855 Chase was elected as the governor of Ohio. A founder member of the Republican Party he sought the party presidential nomination in 1860 but on the third ballot asked his supporters to vote for Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln became president he appointed Chase as his Secretary of the Treasury and had responsibility for organizing the finance of the Union war effort. He also helped to establish a national banking system and another innovation was the employment of women clerks.

Chase was the most progressive member of Lincoln's Cabinet and shared many of the views being expressed by the Radical Republican group. He constantly clashed with the more conservative William Seward and on several occasions came close to resigning.

Chase was highly critical of those officers in the Union Army such as Irvin McDowell, George McClellan and Henry Halleck who appeared unwilling to attack the Confederate Army in 1862. He himself wanted the war to be a crusade against slavery and told Lincoln: "Proslavery sentiment inspires rebellion, let anti-slavery sentiment inspire suppression."

In the summer of 1862 Chase and Abraham Lincoln clashed over the treatment of General David Hunter. In May, Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied districts of South Carolina and soon afterwards issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in the area were free. Lincoln was furious and instructed him to disband the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment and to retract his proclamation. Chase agreed with Hunter's actions and once again came close to resigning.

The main argument that Chase had with Lincoln was that the president refused to state that emancipation of the slaves was an object of the war. In Cabinet meetings Chase was the only member to argue for black suffrage. Chase eventually resigned in June, 1864. Lincoln wrote a letter accepting Chase's resignation agreeing that their relationship had "reached a point of mutual embarrassment that could not be overcome".

In December, 1864, Abraham Lincoln appointed Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Like other Radical Republican, Chase was highly critical of Lincoln's Reconstruction Plans. He was even more critical of those followed by Andrew Johnson and as Chief Justice presided over the Senate impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson.

Over the next few years Chase interpreted the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution in ways that helped to protect the rights of blacks from infringement by state action. Salmon Portland Chase died on 7th May, 1873.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Salmon P. Chase, letter to Frederick Douglass (4th May, 1850)

I should be glad to learn your views as to the probable destiny of the Afro-American race in this country. My own opinion has been that the black and white races, adapted to different latitudes and countries by the influences of climate and other circumstances, operating through many generations, would never have been brought together in one community, except under the constraint of force, such as that of slavery. While, therefore, I have been utterly opposed to any discrimination in legislation against our coloured population, and have uniformly maintained the equal rights of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have always looked forward to the separation of the races.

(2) Carl Schurz first visited Washington in 1854. He described seeing Salmon P. Chase in the Senate in his autobiography published in 1906.

Salmon P. Chase, the anti-slavery Senator from Ohio, was one of the stateliest figures in the Senate. Tall, broad-shouldered, and proudly erect, his features strong and regular and his forehead broad, high and clear, he was a picture of intelligence, strength, courage and dignity. He looked as you would wish a statesman to look. His speech did not borrow any charm from rhetorical decoration, but was clear and strong in argument, vigorous and determined in tone, elevated in sentiment, and of that frank ingenuousness which commands respect and inspires confidence.

(3) Abraham Lincoln, speech in Washington (11th April, 1865)

It is unsatisfactory to some to know that the elective franchise is not given to the coloured man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on intelligent coloured men, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

(4) Salmon P. Chase, letter to Abraham Lincoln in response to his speech made in Washington two days earlier (13th April, 1865)

Once I should have been, if not satisfied, partially, at least, contented with suffrage for the intelligent and those who have been soldiers; now I am convinced that universal suffrage is demanded by sound policy and impartial justice. I shall return to Washington in a day or two, and perhaps it will not be disagreeable to you to have the whole subject talked over.

(5) Report on the work of the Freemen's Bureau that was signed by Salmon P. Chase and General Oliver Howard (August, 1867)

The abolition of slavery and the establishment of freedom are not the one and the same thing. The emancipated negroes were not yet really freemen. Their chains had indeed been sundered by the sword, but the broken links still hung upon their limbs. The question, "What shall be done with the negro? agitated the whole country. Some were in favour of an immediate recognition of their equal and political rights, and of conceding to them at once all the prerogatives of citizenship. But only a few advocated a policy so radical, and, at the same time, generally considered revolutionary, while many, even of those who really wished well to the negro, doubted his capacity for citizenship, his willingness to labour for his own support, and the possibility of his forming, as a freeman, an integral part of the Republic.

The idea of admitting the freedmen to an equal participation in civil and political rights was not entertained in any part of the South. In most of the States they were not allowed to sit on juries, or even to testify in any case in which white men were parties. They were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenceless against assault. Vagrant laws were passed, often relating only to the negro, or, where applicable in terms of both white and black, seldom or never enforced except against the latter.

In some States any court - that is, any local Justice of the Peace - could bind out to a white person any negro under age, without his own consent or that of his parents? The freedmen were subjected to the punishments formerly inflicted upon slaves. Whipping especially, when in some States disfranchised the party subjected to it, and rendered him for ever infamous before the law, was made the penalty for the most trifling misdemeanor.

These legal disabilities were not the only obstacles placed in the path of the freed people. Their attempts at education provoked the most intense and bitter hostility, as evincing a desire to render themselves equal to the whites. Their churches and schoolhouses were in many places destroyed by mobs. In parts of the country remote from observation, the violence and cruelty engendered by slavery found free scope for exercise upon the defenceless negro. In a single district, in a single month, forty-nine cases of violence, ranging from assault and battery to murder, in which whites were the aggressors and blacks the sufferers, were reported.

General Howard issued his first order defining the general policy of the Bureau on the 19th day of May 1865, at once appointed his Assistant Commissioners, and entered upon the work assigned to him. In this work he was greatly embarrassed by the lack of any governmental appropriations for his Bureau, by the opposition in the South to any measures looking towards the elevation of the freed people, and by the very widespread distrust in the North of their capacity for improvement.

What is to be the effect of emancipation upon the industry of the community at large, upon the amount of production, upon the intelligence and morals of the people, upon commerce, trade, manufactures, agriculture and population, can as yet be only a matter of conjecture; and yet such and so marked even in these respects have been the results already, that probably few, if any, of the intelligent portion of the Southern people would desire to see slavery re-established. Wherever the planter has honestly and intelligently accommodated himself to the system of free-labour, freedom has reaped a larger harvest than ever was garnered by slavery.

But the effect upon the freed people is no longer a matter of question. They have refuted slavery's accusation of idleness and incapacity. They have not only worked faithfully and well under white employers, but, when facilities have been accorded them, have proved themselves capable of independent and even self-organized labour. They are not generally extravagant or wasteful. The church and the schoolhouse are alike crowded with eager, expectant people, the rapidity of whose development under these fostering influences has amazed both foes and friends, and contributed more, perhaps, than any other cause to mitigate the prejudice which survived slavery, and make the work of enfranchisement complete.