Review: Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, Walter Stahr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Summary: A biography tracing the life of this public figure who was a contender along with Lincoln for the presidency and who played a vital role in his cabinet, and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

He was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 and served in his cabinet, financing the Union war effort as the Secretary of the Treasury. But there was far more to the life of this public servant that makes him well worth the full length biography Walter Stahr has given us.

Born a New Englander and Dartmouth educated, after reading for the bar exam, he moved to Cincinnati and was strongly identified with Ohio’s politics thereafter. From Cincinnati’s leading attorney, he served twice in the U.S. Senate from Ohio and four years as Ohio’s governor. From defending fugitive slaves to becoming one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of the day, Chase sought to curb the spread of slavery and was far out in front of Lincoln and almost every white of his day in his advocacy for the equality of Blacks, not only arguing for their freedom but for their rights to vote and fully participate in society. It was one of the factors that cost him the presidential nomination

Setting aside his own ambitions, he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln in 1860, and then answered Lincoln’s call to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Not only did he find the resources through loans and taxes to finance the war effort, he reformed the country’s banking system and gave us a common currency rather than the myriad of banknotes issued by different banks. He employed women to work in the treasury. His advice to Lincoln went beyond the nation’s finances to counselling the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, he set aside presidential ambitions once again to accept Lincoln’s nomination to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice, a role that would be critical in post-war cases on the rights of Blacks, America’s financial system, and the relation of the states to the Union. He would preside over the first presidential impeachment in U.S. history, helping establish precedents followed in more recent impeachments after his efforts to save Johnson from himself failed.

At least three things stood out to me in Stahr’s biography. One is that Chase is worthy to be considered America’s William Wilberforce. His anti-slavery advocacy was early and never wavered, though often disregarded or thwarted. Second, he was deeply acquainted with tragedy, burying three wives and several children and the unhappy marriage of his daughter Katherine. Third, was that he was a man of deep religious faith, that undergirded his efforts and sustained him in loss.

All of this makes Chase one of the most noteworthy public servants of this period in American history, despite an odd first name that Chase counseled his daughter not to pass on. Stahr portrays Chase as a man of ambition and yet not an overweening ambition. He both recognized when the first place would go to others and also when the public good required setting aside his private ambitions. Although he had no role in its founding, Chase bank bears his name in recognition of the important role he played in the nation’s finances and banking system.

He died comparatively young at age 65. But it was a life well and fully lived, as Stahr’s biography attests. He was a workhorse in the nation’s service, whether in criss-crossing the country during campaigns, working tirelessly during the war, or writing more opinions than his fellow justices and covering a large circuit when this was part of a justice’s duties. Above all, he was a champion of liberty, for fully realizing the ideals of the nation articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration, for Blacks and for women.