Salmon P. Chase was one of the most consequential Americans of the mid–19th century. A determined and articulate opponent of slavery, he served as governor of Ohio and a U.S. senator, was a co-founder of the Republican party, and in 1860 a credible candidate for the new party’s presidential nomination. When the nod went instead to Abraham Lincoln, Chase campaigned vigorously for his fellow Midwesterner and was rewarded with a Cabinet position as secretary of the Treasury.
In that position he was largely responsible for creating greenbacks, a standard national currency, and generating the funds needed to fuel the Union war machine, overseeing an annual growth in prewar federal spending from $80 million to $1.3 billion by the war’s end. In December 1864, six months after Lincoln accepted his fourth offer of resignation, the president appointed him as the nation’s sixth chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Walter Stahr, a seasoned biographer, has been steadily chronicling the lives of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members, with previous volumes on William Seward (2013) and Edwin Stanton (2017). His treatment of Chase, the first new biography in over 25 years, is exhaustive. He has dived deep into Chase’s public and private correspondence, illuminating the New Hampshire native’s move to Ohio as a 12-year-old to be raised by an uncle after his father’s death left his mother with 10 children to raise.
Stahr paints a picture of a disciplined, intelligent individual whose steady rise exemplified the era’s ideal of the self-made man. His deep religious faith sustained him when all three of his wives and four of the six daughters they bore him died. Only two grew to adulthood, with the eldest, Kate, widely considered to be one of Civil War Washington’s most eligible young women.
Stahr treats Chase kindly in his descriptions of his interactions with Lincoln and his fellow Cabinet members. There is plenty to suggest that Chase’s overweening presidential ambitions caused two Cabinet crises and ultimately soured his relationship with the 16th president. The author also glides over the suggestion that Chase might have benefited financially from his close relationship with the financier Jay Cooke, who bore primary responsibility for selling U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the war.
Once on the Supreme Court, Chase remained a political force. Stahr details his public advocacy for a policy of “universal suffrage and universal amnesty,” and for the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. The author also suggests that Chase’s role as the presiding officer in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial may well have been tainted by the chief justice’s continuing hunger for the presidency, an appetite that led him to leave the Republican party of Grant to become a Democrat.
Chase died in 1873 at 65, after a term on the Supreme Court that has generally received middling marks from historians. While there is no doubt that Chase’s considerable ambition detracts from his legacy—a fellow justice wrote that “selfishness generated by ambition” had warped his “warm heart and a vigorous intellect”—he nevertheless was a critical figure in the preservation of the Union. Stahr’s biography offers us a welcome reminder of that fact.
This review appeared in the Autumn 2022 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival
By Walter Stahr
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