Chase, Salmon Portland, 1808–73, American public official and jurist, 6th chief justice of the United States (1864–73), b. Cornish, N.H. Admitted to the bar in 1829, he defended runaway blacks so often that he became known as "attorney general for fugitive slaves." Chase became prominent in the Liberty party and later in the Free-Soil party and was elected by a coalition of Free-Soilers and antislavery Democrats to the U.S. Senate, where (1849–55) he eloquently opposed such proslavery measures as the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Chase was elected governor of Ohio in 1855 at the head of a Republican ticket that was dominated by Know-Nothings; by 1857, when he was reelected, he was a leading member of the new Republican party. He was a splendid figure of a man, a "sculptor's ideal of a President," and few Americans have ever gone after that high office with more determination—or less success. He sought the Republican nomination in 1860, but since he lacked the full support of even his own state's delegation and since many considered him an extreme abolitionist, his chance passed quickly.
Again elected to the Senate, Chase served only two days in Mar., 1861, before resigning to become Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. In that difficult position he took part in framing for Congress the new fiscal legislation necessitated by the Civil War, collected new taxes, placed unprecedentedly large loans with reluctant investors, and directed vast expenditures. To assist in government financing and also to improve the status of the currency, he proposed the national bank system (established in Feb., 1863), which is generally considered his greatest achievement. Ambition and a high regard for his own worth made Chase a difficult man to work with; after refusing four previous attempts, Lincoln finally accepted Chase's resignation on June 29, 1864.
Chase failed in his effort to secure the presidential nomination, but he remained an important national figure, and on Dec. 6, 1864, after the death of Roger B. Taney, Lincoln appointed Chase chief justice of the United States. He took a moderate stand in most of the important Reconstruction cases. His dissenting opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases subsequently became the accepted position of the courts as to the restrictive force of the Fourteenth Amendment. On the other hand, his decision (1870) in Hepburn v. Griswold (see Legal Tender cases) was soon reversed. For his fairness in presiding over the Senate in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, he was furiously denounced by his old radical friends. Chase persisted in seeking the presidency, but neither the Democrats in 1868 nor the Liberal Republicans in 1872 were interested in him.
See biography by A. B. Hart (1899, repr. 1969); D. H. Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (1954, repr. 1970); J. W. Schuckers, Life and Public Services of Salmon P. Chase (1874, repr. 1970).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.