HomeConstitutional LawLegal HistoryLegal EthicsEvidenceProfessional ResponsibilityContact MeSearch


Supreme Court Justices

Salmon Chase (1808 - 1873)

Salmon P. Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in New Hampshire. Chase was the eighth child of Ithamar and Janette Ralston Chase. In August 1817, after a disastrous experience in business that left him nearly bankrupt, Ithamar Chase died after suffering from a stroke. At age 12, Salmon Chase moved to Ohio to study at a boy's school at which his Uncle Philander, a bishop in the Episcopalian church, was in charge. He returned to New Hampshire at age 15, and in 1824 entered Dartmouth College. Chase made his way to Washington, D.C., and after teaching for a while, began to read law with William Wirt, then the Attorney General under President John Quincy Adams.  After passing an oral bar examination in the District of Columbia, Chase left for Cincinnati. In 1834, he married Catherine ("Kitty") Garniss, with whom he had a child, Catherine Jane. Less than a month after their child's birth, Kitty Garniss died. In September 1839, the 31-year old Chase married Eliza Ann ("Lizzie") Smith, who was 18. Chase and Eliza had three children, two of whom died in infancy. Chase's first child, Catherine Jane, died in 1840. His second wife, Lizzie, died in September 1845. Chase married his third wife, Sarah Belle Dunlop Ludlow, in November 1846. He and Belle had two children, one of whom died in infancy. Belle died in 1852. Chase never remarried.

Chase joined the antislavery movement in the late 1830s, largely for moral reasons. Chase was an Episcopalian who detested nativism and racism, and who for the rest of his life would pursue the cause of equal rights. He was also vain, overweeningly ambitious, and, in the end, his biographer states, "a tragic figure."  Chase was a Whig, a Liberty Party and Free Soil Party member, a Democrat, and finally a Republican. He served in the United States Senate from 1849-55, where he unsuccessfully opposed the Compromise of 1850, and was governor of Ohio from 1855-61, at a time of extraordinary tension and change. Chase lost the Republican nomination to Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and in 1861, as a new Senator from Ohio, Chase was named Secretary of Treasury.  Chase was a capable Secretary, particularly given the importance of monetary issues in the conduct of the Civil War, but was a cabinet member whose loyalty Lincoln was to call into question. Chase had little confidence in Lincoln's ability to manage the War, and began to campaign for nomination to the Presidency in 1864. Relations between Lincoln and Chase deteriorated for this and other reasons, and when Chase tendered his resignation in mid-1864, Lincoln accepted it.

On October 12, 1864, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney died. It appears that Lincoln had decided to appoint Chase, who both desired a position in the Supreme Court as a respite from politics, and who believed that he could run a Presidential campaign from there, as had his Cincinnati neighbor and friend, John McLean. Chase found the office of Chief Justice monotonous and tedious. He also realized that although Chief Justice, he had only one of the ten (1863), then seven (1866) and then nine (1869) votes that counted.

In 1868, the House of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson, who'd succeeded Lincoln, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. As Chief Justice, Chase presided over the trial in the Senate, and his perceived conservatism by Radical Republicans on Johnson's impeachment made his efforts to make the trial nonpartisan largely unsuccessful. His apparent "defense" of Johnson made him a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 1868, which he did not obtain, in part because of his steadfast belief in racial equality.

Chase's most important opinions were in the Legal Tender Cases, Ex parte McCardle, and Texas v. White. In the first case, Chase wrote that the Legal Tender Act, which made greenbacks (those bills that we are now so familiar with) legal tender for the payment of debts and taxes, was unconstitutional because it violated the due process clause of the 5th Amendment and was contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. Chase's opinion, by a 4-3 Court, was reversed a year later, after President Ulysses S. Grant appointed William Strong and Joseph Bradley to the Court.  In Ex parte McCardle, the Court held that Congress's decision to strip the Court of the jurisdiction to hear McCardle's case, which was a landmine for Reconstruction, was constitutional. McCardle was tried in a military court for inciting insurrection pursuant to the Reconstruction Act of 1867. McCardle argued that, because the civil courts were open, a military trial of a civilian was unconstitutional. The arguments in McCardle took place during Johnson's impeachment in March 1868. After the arguments, Congress repealed the Court's jurisdiction to hear the case by repealing those provisions of the habeas corpus act the permitted McCardle to bring the case to the Court. On April 12, 1869, a unanimous Court (8-0) held that Congress's action was constitutional. In Texas v. White, decided the same day as McCardle, the Court held that secession was constitutionally impermissible, so the state of Texas had never left the United States. The Court also decided that the manner of Reconstruction lay within Congress's power, for it was a political issue.

In 1870, Chase suffered a stroke. When he returned to the Court in 1871, he presented a gaunt and sickly sight. He suffered another stroke in Spring 1873, and on May 7, 1873, Chase died.