The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
ĽName: Salmon Portland Chase

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Salmon P. Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, the ninth of eleven children. At the age of twelve, he was placed in the care of his uncle, Philander Chase, a well-known Episcopal bishop in Ohio and, later, founder of Kenyon College. After studying at the bishop’s school, followed by a year at Cincinnati College, young Chase returned to New Hampshire and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1826. He moved to Washington, D. C., where he taught school and studied law under William Wirt, the U.S. Attorney General. Chase passed the bar in 1829 and opened a law practice in Cincinnati. He won praise for his annotated collection of the Statutes of Ohio (3 vols.), which soon became the authoritative reference work in the state judicial system.

In 1834, he defended abolitionist editor and activist James Birney for harboring a runaway slave. Chase became convinced that slavery was a sin and that blacks deserved equal civil rights. He soon began defending the slaves themselves, causing his opponents to label him the "Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves." He was one of the organizers of the Liberty party and, in 1848, of the Free-Soil party in Ohio. In 1849, a coalition of Free-Soil and Democratic legislators elected him to represent Ohio in the U. S. Senate. During his single term, Chase introduced the successful Pacific Railroad Act and vehemently condemned the fugitive slave bill that became part of the Compromise of 1850. His opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 provoked him to organize the Anti-Nebraska party in Ohio, which soon became the new Republican party. He was elected governor of Ohio in 1855 as a Republican and reelected in 1857. As governor he advocated public education, prison reform, and women’s rights.

Chase’s political goal was to become President of the United States, but he failed to gain the Republican nomination in either 1856, 1860, or 1864. The Ohio legislature decided to return him to the U. S. Senate in 1861, where he served but two days before resigning to become Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. During the Civil War, he faced the daunting task of financing the Union war effort and maintaining the nation’s solvency. He created a national banking system, issued fiat money, and established an Internal Revenue Division. Chase was a constant critic of Lincoln’s policies, inundating the President with unsolicited advice and proffering his resignation four times in fits of pique. In October 1864, Lincoln finally accepted the Secretary’s resignation, but in December appointed him as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1873.

In one of his first acts as Chief Justice, Chase appointed John Rock as the first African-American attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court. In March 1868, Chase presided over the removal trial of the impeached President Johnson in the U.S. Senate. The Chief Justice brought to the trial a much needed air of dignity and impartiality. As the first impeachment trial of a President under the Constitution, Chase realized that the procedure would set important precedents. He insisted that the Senate conduct itself as a court of law, not as a legislative body.

Chase was unable to forge a solid majority during his tenure as Chief Justice and often found himself in dissent on such important cases as Ex parte Milligan (1866), Bradwell v. Illinois (1873) and the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). In Texas v. White (1869), however, he authored the majority opinion that ruled secession unconstitutional and reaffirmed the Congressional right to guarantee republican government in the states. This decision essentially endorsed Congressional control over the Reconstruction process.

In 1868, Chase sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic party, but was passed over because of his stance in favor of voting rights for black men. Thereafter he largely withdrew from partisan politics, although he opposed Grant’s reelection in 1872. Chase died in New York City.

Robert C. Kennedy, HarpWeek

Sources consulted:  Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History; William Degregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents; and Lydia L. Rapoza, "Salmon P. Chase" on the Revolution to Reconstruction website


Salmon Portland Chase
(13 January 1808 - 7 May 1873)
Source:  Harper's Weekly

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