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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 632

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This is the grave of Salmon Chase.

Born in Cornish, New Hampshire in 1808, Chase grew up in a precarious situation when his father died when Salmon was a child and left his mother with no income and ten children to care for. Luckily, the family had well-off relatives. The boy went to Cincinnati to live with his uncle Philander Chase, who was a prominent Episcopalian minister in the West. He went to the small Cincinnati College for two years before transferring to Dartmouth before his junior year. He graduated in 1826 with distinction and then went to Washington to study law with Attorney General William Wirt. He passed the bar in 1829 and moved back to Cincinnati.

Chase became a prominent lawyer in Cincinnati by the early 1830s. Moreover, he became well-known for his strong abolitionism. Cincinnati was not only a border city between north and south, it was a city that had both a large free black population and a very conservative white population with lost of southern sympathies. Moreover, it was a major stop for escaped slaves, who could get to the city and be free, despite the protests of white southerners. Chase became famous for taking on the cases of these freed slaves and others who fought the Slave Power. He even became known as the “Attorney General of Freed Slaves.” He lost most of these cases, but argued before the Supreme Court, for instance, that slavery was covered inherently by local and not national law and therefore federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 were unconstitutional.

Chase also started developing political ambitions. He was a Whig initially, being elected to the Cincinnati City Council in 1840, but soon migrated to the Liberty Party, which he headed in the city between 1841 and 1848. Growing increasingly nationally prominent in anti-slavery political circles, he was the key figure in the creation of the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the drafting of Martin Van Buren to be its presidential candidate. In 1849, Chase was sent to the Senate as a Free Soiler. But he knew that third parties did not have a permanent place in American life and he used his powers to influence northern Democrats to break from southerners in opposition in slavery. He took the lead in opposing the Fugitive Slave Act and other pro-slavery measures of the Compromise of 1850, as well as the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. He joined the Democrats to do this, but then left them in 1854, when he worked to unite the remaining Whigs now in the political wasteland with disaffected northern Democrats to form the Republican Party.

In 1855, Chase left the Senate, having been elected governor of Ohio. He was a very solid reformer, not only opposing slavery (which given the craziness of the Ohio Democratic Party in these years was no small task), but also supported women’s rights, prison reform (which probably meant a move toward solitary confinement, seen as a positive in these years), and public education. Basically, Chase was a mid-century liberal. He also had a huge ego. A gigantic ego. One of the largest in American history. And he was determined that he should be president. He went all-in to be the Republican nominee in 1860. But of course a man of that level of ego had a big enemies and those included the followers of the other leading Republican, William Seward. He also didn’t hold the same tariff views as other Republicans and also had a long history of working with Democrats, which made him suspect to the old Whigs who were in the majority. Well, in the debates over how this would go, of course Abraham Lincoln won out as a compromise candidate. Chase was highly disappointed. He was sent back to the Senate but did not stay long.

Lincoln named Chase his Secretary of Treasury in 1861. He brought all the main figures of the Republican Party into his Cabinet. They thought they could control him. That was not to be the case. Lincoln ended up becoming close with Seward but not with Chase. The latter’s overwhelming ego and domineering personality made him someone to hold at arm’s length. To be fair, Chase was a good Secretary of the Treasury. The nation needed someone willing to be financially creative at a time of unprecedented need to pay for a war and Chase was that person. He reestablished a sort of national bank and created the greenbacks needed to make it work. This placed the American economy on a solid foundation, which the Confederate economy never was. A national currency was a new phenomenon in a U.S. with a pretty ridiculous currency system based on states and local banks with massive problems with counterfeiting. So this was good. He also established that the U.S. could sell debt to investors and had Jay Cooke, a banker and investor, run this operation. This would later lead Cooke to justify his own speculations and corruption in terms of his earlier patriotism, all the way to him playing a leading role in creating the Panic of 1873, but Cooke and Chase did indeed team up to do important work during the Civil War.

In creating the greenbacks, Chase wanted to be known for this accomplishment. And he wanted to run for president again, this time successfully. So he placed his own face on the $1 note so that everyone would know who he was. And in fact, he became known within the Lincoln administration for using his office to promote his own career endlessly. By late 1862, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was reporting that Chase was working to create special financial favors for General John Dix as a ploy to promote himself and gain powerful friends. Such schemes would become common in the Gilded Age and the Civil War laid the groundwork for such corruption. Chase tried to lord his position over Lincoln. He repeatedly threatened to resign, knowing that if Lincoln accepted this and made an enemy of Chase that it would hurt the presidency badly with the radicals.

But as people often did with Lincoln, Chase underestimated him. It was an open secret that Chase wanted to challenge Lincoln for the nomination in 1864. His scheming failed and Republicans renominated Lincoln. The president then sort of confronted him. Chase again offered to resign, still thinking he was untouchable. But Lincoln told him to take a hike and then kicked him upstairs to the Supreme Court when Roger Taney died, creating an opening as Chief Justice. Chase was on the Court between 1864 and 1873. He was never really happy there, wanting to be president. He did open the Court to African-American lawyers. But the law was subsumed by his ambition. So in 1868, Chase worked with Jefferson Davis to get him off so that he wouldn’t have to rule against him and therefore hurt his presidential ambitions. The way this worked is that Chase met with Davis’ lawyer and told him the argument to use–that he had forfeited U.S. citizenship and could not be convicted of treason and that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment banned further punishment of the Confederates. When the lawyer did this, Chase threw out the case on Constitutional grounds and it was not appealed to the Court as a whole.

By 1868, Chase was also moving back to the Democratic Party, feeling it an easier road to a presidential nomination than with the Republicans who were going to go with Ulysses S. Grant. He was considered a major competitor but Democrats chose to run the most racist presidential campaign in American history, perhaps excepting Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and went with Horatio Seymour instead of the guy with a long history of supporting black rights. Then he went in with the Liberal Republicans in 1872 to get that nomination, but Horace Greeley was the choice.

In 1873, Chase had a stroke and died, never realizing his massive ambition. The Chase National Bank, today JPMorgan Chase, is named after him though he had nothing to do with it.

Salmon Chase is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio. This happened in 1886. He was initially buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other members of the Lincoln Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Simon Cameron is in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Edward Bates is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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