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Salmon P Chase, Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves
"The law of the Creator, which invests every human being with an inalienable title to freedom, cannot be repealed by any interior law which asserts that man is property."
Salmon P. Chase 1842 in the case of John Van Zandt. A farmer, abolitionist, member of the Ohio Underground railroad, who had been charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act.


Salmon Portland Chase
Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves
1808-1873
Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury
Courtesy of the US Treasury Department

Prepared by Lydia Rapoza, Curator of the Cranston Historical Society

Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves

Democratic Senator

Secretary of Treasury

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
History of Treasury Building
References and links




One hundred ninety years ago on January 13th,1808, near the banks of the Connecticut River in Cornish, New Hampshire, Salmon Portland Chase, the ninth of eleven children was born to Ithmar Chase and his wife the former Janet Ralston was born. Ithmar Chase died nine years after the birth of Salmon Chase, leaving his widow a small amount of property and ten surviving children.[1]

Salmon Chase's education began in 1816 in Keene, New Hampshire, than at a better school in Windsor, Vermont. His Uncle Philander Chase, an Episcopal Bishop, took Salmon to the woods of Ohio. Young Chase attended the bishop's school at Worthington, near Columbus. Chase had no love for the monotonous life of farm work. His Uncle worked him hard while he simultaneously studied Greek for two years. In 1822 Cincinnati College appointed Bishop Chase president of the college. At fifteen years old Salmon Chase was admitted as a sophomore. A year at the college was all the Bishop served as he left Cincinnati College, traveling to Great Britain to raise money for the founding of the Theological Seminary in Ohio, later to be called Kenyon College. Gladly Salmon Chase returned to New Hampshire. He entered Dartmouth College as a junior. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1826, Chase moved onto Washington, D.C. and conducted a private school for boys. At the same he studied law under the father of a student, United States Attorney General William Wirt. Although he had wished to practice law in Washington, Chase did not have the residency requirement, Ohio allowed him to use his time he lived there with his uncle so after he passed the bar in 1829, he promptly moved back to Ohio where he opened his law practice. He would say his first client paid him a half dollar for drawing a deed and his second client borrowed the half dollar and decamped.[2]

Personal Life in Ohio

familyWhile waiting for clients, Chase compiled the scattered and confusing Statues of Ohio', into three volumes. It brought Salmon Chase praise and the recognition he desired. It had taken Chase three years to accomplish the effort. Adding notes and references he produced what became the reference authority in Ohio courts. Soon after completing the Statues of Ohio' at twenty-two years old Chase married Catherine Jane Garniss on March 4, 1834. She was the first of his three wives. Catherine died December 1, 1835 with childbirth fever, leaving a daughter the first Catherine Jane who died four years later. Chase had been away on a legal trip at the time of his wife's death anguished he had left her despite reassurances that she was recovering. With tenderness and anguish from his guilt in his diaries for the rest of his life he would recall his wife Catherine with tenderness. After his death his daughter Kate hid the diaries from Chase's biographers fearing that the love he had for Catherine lessened the affection he had for her mother, his second wife, Eliza Ann Smith. On September 26, 1839, Chase married Eliza. Of the three daughters born only Catherine Jane would survive. Kate would marry Senator William Sprague of RI, textile manufacturer, former Governor of Rhode Island. Sprague money financed Chase's political ambitions. Eliza died of consumption September 29, 1845. Growing accustomed to the darkness of death this time Chase did not go into the deep anguish of mourning that he had for Eliza instead he threw himself deeper into his anti-slavery causes. Sarah Bella Dunlop Ludlow, became the third Mrs. Salmon P. Chase on November 6, 1846. The surviving child of two daughters was Chase's beloved Janet(Nettie)Ralston(Mrs.W.S. Hoyt). Sarah also died of tuberculosis on January 13, 1852. Chase remained a widower the rest of his life. Much to Kate's delight

'Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves'

In the early years in Cincinnati Chase was more concerned with his family affairs and Sunday School Unions and Temperance Societies than he was with being an advocate of anti-slavery causes. At that time, 1836, protecting the civil liberties of white men was more important to Chase than the civil liberties of blacks. Only when an angry mob tried to shut down the abolitionist newspaper 'The Philanthropist' did Chase become involved. Defending editor James Birney against the riotous mob Chase became labeled as one of 'Birney's supporters'.

In 1837, Birney's housekeeper, a light-skinned mulattto Matilda, who Birney hired on the assumption that she was white, was taken into custody as a fugitive slave. When she was arrested it was discoved that she was the slave and daughter of Larkin Lawrenece of St. Louis. While in Cincinnati the year before, Matilda had escaped from the boat while it was tied to a dock. Birney was charged with habouring a fugitive slave. Chase challenged the Fugitive Slave Law. He argued that the law was unconstitutional and in any case, not applicable in Ohio because the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had made slavery illegal there. He also charged that slavery was a violation of the natural right to human liberty, a right 'proclaimed by our fathers in the Declaration of Independence." "All men are born equally free." Judge D.K. Este was unconvinced and ruled Matilda was legally a slave and ordered her returned to her owner. Two days after the decision, she was placed on for New Orleans. She was sold at public auction.

Birney v Ohio, 8 Ohio, 230, Birney was charged with violating the Ohio of 1804 against harboring a slave. Despite Chase's defense Judge Este found Birney guilty and fined him fifty dollars. Chase appealed to the state supreme court, where the case was heard in January 1838. Chase made a vigorous argument that Matilda having been brought to Ohio by the consent of her master, became free. She had had not escaped from one state to another, once brought to Ohio by Lawrence she ceased to be a slave. Since Matilda was not a slave in Ohio, Birney could not be accused of harboring a fugitive slave. The court dismissed the charges against Birney on grounds that he could not have known Matilda was a slave when he hired her. The indictment had failed to charge Birney with assisting a fugitive slave. Chase's constitutional arguments were ignored.

Soon the New Hampshire native was defending runaway slaves. Chase became convinced that slavery was a sin. His belief that black people had the right to vote and to an education, and the right to testify in court against white people, alienated him from white society. In a name meant to be uncomplimentary Kentucky opponents called him 'The Attorney-General of Fugitive Slaves'. Chase soon used the title with pride.

"I never refused my help to any person black or white; and I liked the office nontheless because there were niether fees nor salary connected with it."

He never refused to help fugitive slaves or people indicted for aiding the escape of slaves. Appearing in defense of many fugitives he never won a case but his fervent efforts made him a 'friend and counselor to the distressed colored people in Ohio and all over the country'. Taking on these cases brought little else but publicity for he was seldom paid for his services and may have lost clients due to his association with the blacks and abolitionists. At some anti-slavery rallies Chase was pelted with eggs, on one occasion he was hit with a brick.

To show their strong sense of gratitude for Chase's defense of Samuel Watson, a runaway slave, and for his other undertakings on behalf of slaves, he was presented with a sterling silver pitcher, as a testimonial of gratitude for his efforts in the Watson case and for other services. The pitcher bore the following inscription:

A testimonial of gratitude to 'SALMON P. CHASE FROM THE COLORED PEOPLE OF CINCINNATI, for his various public services in behalf of the oppressed and particularly for his ELOQUENT ADVOCACY OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN in the case of Samuel Watson, who was claimed as a fugitive slave, Feb. 12, 1845.'3

Accepting the gift Chase stated the beliefs from which he was never to waiver.

"True democracy makes no inquiry about the color of the skin, or the places of nativity , or any other similar circumstances of condition. Whenever it sees a man, it recognizes a being endowed by his Creator with original inalienable rights... I regard, therefore, the exclusion of colored people from the election franchise as incompatible with true democratic principles."

Future Governor Chase would serve proponents of slavery lemonade from the same pitcher at the governor's mansion in the summers of 1856 to 1860. 4

From 1840 to 1849 Chase had his anti-slavery pursuits, the task of organizing the Liberty and Free-Soil Parties, and his private practice to attend to. During this time his second wife Eliza died in 1845 leaving him with his daughter Catherine, Kate Chase, Sprague, who would make her own mark on Washington in the years Chase was Treasury Secretary.

The Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party became one with the call of the Free Soil Party Convention in Buffalo, N.Y, Aug. 9, 1848. Writing strong resolutions Chase, wrote most of the platforms for the Free Soil Party. 'No more slave states and no more slave territory were the party's main agenda. The platform called for an end to slavery in the territories and a ban on the admission of any new slave states to the union.6

It also demanded free homesteads for settlers on the public domain. 'Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men,' a slogan that climaxed the platform declarations, gave the party its name. Martin Van Buren became the presidential nominee. Although far from being a radical anti-slavery man, he had opposed on anti-slavery grounds the annexation of Texas.7 Delegates from eighteen states adopted the platform. Van Buren failed to carry a state.

Democratic Senator from Ohio

In 1850 on the votes of the Free Soil-Democratic coalition Chase was elected to the United States Senate. The freshman senator from Ohio fought feverishly against the Compromise of 1850. Opposing the Kansas­Nebraska Act of 1854, Chase helped organize the Anti­Nebraska Party, as many northern Whigs and The Independent Democrats, discontented with the Democrats liberal view on slavery, severed their political affiliations for the new anti-slavery Republican party. In 1853 Senator Chase introduced the Pacific Rail Act to Congress and it passed.

The Republican party nominated Chase for Governor of Ohio.8 He was elected and served two terms as the first republican governor of Ohio. (1856-60). Governor Chase promoted education, pushed for reform in the prison system of Ohio, established an insane asylum and promoted women's rights.

'Presidential Fever'

Chase was smitten by a malady that would plague him the rest of his life, 'presidential fever'. He tried to secure the presidential nomination of the first republican convention in 1856 but failed. Trying for the nomination again in 1860 Chase felt he was entitled to the republican presidential nomination.

Failing to muster even the support of the Ohio Delegation Chase lost the nomination to Illinois Senator Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln made the comment about Chase, "I prefer him to myself; for Doctor Branford says Governor Chase combines greater executive, administrative and high statesmanlike ability than any man living."9

Ohio, however, preferred Chase in the US Senate in 1860, and returned him there as a republican. In the campaign of 1863 Treasury Secretary Chase would try unsuccessfully to replace Lincoln on the republican ticket.

During the Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, 1868, the democrats began to solicit Chief Justice Chase as a presidential candidate. Chase was not opposed to a democratic nomination if that party accepted universal suffrage.

Secretary of the Treasury See Chase's Office in the United States Treasury Building

Two days after being sworn as senator for the second time Chase resigned to accept the offer of Secretary of Treasury from the newly elected president Abraham Lincoln. Chase brought to the office his fear of monopolies, distrust of bankers, a preference for revenue tariffs and a belief in hard money. His principles would be tested by an empty treasury coffer and a long civil war that would cost the nation more than twenty billion dollars.

Professing a total ignorance of financial matters, Lincoln placed the entire problem of financing the Civil War to Salmon Chase. The Treasury Secretary would issue create the Internal Revenue Division and adopt a national banking system in attempts to keep the nation from going bankrupt. Against his beliefs, and believing that issuing greenbacks to be unconstitutional, but with the debts from the war mounting and not being paid, Chase lobbied the congress to pass the Legal Tender Acts of 1862 and 1863. This enabled the printing of paper money as a legal substitute for gold and silver for pre-existing debts including taxes, internal duties, personal debts, and excise taxes. debts. After the war as Chief Justice, Chase would disown his own offspring and declare the Legal Tender Acts unconstitutional.

'In God We Trust' was printed on every piece of U.S. currency for the first time in 1864 by order of the Secretary of the Treasury. The face of the Treasury Secretary graced the one dollar dominations. The most common of the bills, it was the one the public was most like to possess. Thereby keeping Mr. Chase's image in the mind of the potential voters in the next presidential elections. He was nick named 'Old Mr. Greenbacks.'

While Lincoln admired Chase's financial genus, relations between the two men were never cordial. Lincoln's goal was to preserve the Union at all costs. Chase would not comprise on the abolition of slavery for all states.

'And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of all mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.' The last line of the Emancipation Proclamation was written by Chase at the suggestion of Lincoln when Chase called to the President's attention that there was no mention of the Deity.10

A devout religious man, Chase read the Bible every day and sought comfort from the loss of his wives and children in God.

Disagreements between Chase and Lincoln were common occurrences, when a matter arouse Chase didn't like the Treasury Secretary would render his resignation. However, Lincoln always managed to persuade Chase to reconsider. The fourth time Lincoln when accepted the resignation no one was more surprised than Chase.

"....I will tell you how it is with Chase. Chase has fallen into two bad habits. He thinks he has became indispensable to the country . . . He also thinks he ought to be President. He has no doubts 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...He is either determined to annoy me, or that I shall pat him on the shoulder and coax him to stay. I don't think I ought do it. I will not do it. I will take him at his word . . . And yet there is not a man in the Union who would make as good a Chief Justice as Chase, and if I have the opportunity I will make him Chief Justice of the United States .." 11

Lincoln's only concern about the appointment of Chase was that the black robes of the court would not cloak Chase's ambition to be president. Lincoln thought about asking Chase to agree not to seek the presidency but Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, friend of Chase, advised the President against it. A few days later a secretary brought Lincoln a letter from Chase.

"Simply a kind and friendly letter,' Secretary Nicolay replied to Lincoln's question of what it was about. Lincoln without reading it, smiled and told the secretary to

'File it with his other recommendations."12

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Chase as Chief Justice:The Trials of Chief Justice ChaseJanuary 13th 1998.
Page threeThe Historic Treasury Building and references to Chase
Lincoln's War Cabinet

UNITED STATES TREASURY CURRENCY INFORMATION Many thanks to the webmaster of the US Treasury Department for linking Salmon P Chase.

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Thank you to the Internet Public Library for linking Salmon P. Chase to its fine Presidential Pages




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