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Happy Birthday, Salmon P. Chase, “Attorney General for Fugitive Slaves”

January 13, 2010
by Jen O'Neill
U.S. Treasury Secretary and Chief Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase was a force to be reckoned with. Though his personal life was dogged by misfortune, and his presidential aspirations were crushed, he tirelessly pursued justice for slaves and African-Americans, and substantially influenced the structure of the U.S. economic system.

Early Days

Salmon Portland Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish Township, New Hampshire, the ninth of 11 children. His father died when he was 9 years old; at age 12, he moved to Ohio to live with his uncle Philander Chase, an Episcopal bishop. After graduating at the age of 18 from Dartmouth College, he had a brief stint as a schoolteacher before pursuing law.

Upon being admitted to the bar, Chase found success writing and editing legal texts. Eventually, his strong religious principles drew him toward the abolitionist cause, and to defending escaped slaves, arguing “The honor, the welfare, the safety of our country, imperiously require the absolute and unqualified divorce of the government from slavery.”

Notable Accomplishments

Chase switched political parties to find one most suited to his personal ethics, eventually cofounding the Free-Soil Party, and later, the Republican Party. He became governor of Ohio in 1857; he was elected an Ohio senator in 1861, he resigned two days later when Lincoln appointed him secretary of the treasury.

In his new role, Chase helped to create the original national banking system (which reinforced the status of U.S. currency) and established the Internal Revenue Division.

Chase held the most radical abolitionist views on Lincoln’s Cabinet; he was the only member to argue for black suffrage. Chase’s progressive opinions eventually created such a wide rift between himself and President Lincoln that he resigned as secretary of treasury in 1864.

However, six months later, Lincoln appointed Chase to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In that capacity, he presided over the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Chase was admired for the “dignity and impartiality” he brought to the precedent-setting proceedings, according to HarpWeek.

The Rest of the Story

Chase suffered tragedy in his personal life, outliving three wives and three of his daughters. He was also thwarted in his professional ambitions, failing in his bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860 and 1864, and the Democratic Party’s in 1868. Chase remained the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until his death on May 7, 1873.

Chase’s role as treasury  secretary was not soon forgotten. Though he had no official association with the business, Chase Manhattan named their bank after him. When larger-denomination bills were still in official circulation during the first half of the 20th century, Chase’s face appeared on the $10,000 bill.

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