Salmon P. Chase Biography

Supreme Court Justice, Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer, U.S. Governor, Government Official, U.S. Representative (1808–1873)
As Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, Salmon P. Chase implemented the National Banking Act and was the sixth chief justice of the Supreme Court.


Salmon P. Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire. In 1849, he was elected U.S. Senator. In 1855, he became the first Republican Ohio governor. He made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination a few years later, but lost to Lincoln. As Secretary of the Treasury, he implemented the National Banking Act. In 1864, be became chief justice of the Supreme Court. Chase died in New York City on May 7, 1873.

Pre-Political Life

Salmon Portland Chase was born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire. After the death of his father, Chase was raised by his uncle, Episcopalian religious leader Philander Chase. The young Chase went on to study at Cincinnati College in 1822, but ultimately graduated from Dartmouth. He was a school headmaster for a time in Washington, D.C., and then studied law, returning to Cincinnati in 1830 to set up his practice.

Due at least partially to his religious upbringing, Chase was a passionate abolitionist. He regularly defended African-American runaway slaves and the white citizens who harbored them, critiquing the Fugitive Slave Law in his arguments and earning a media-fueled reputation for his beliefs.

Senate Seat and Presidential Runs

Beginning in 1840, Chase served on the Cincinnati City Council and helped create the abolitionist-oriented Liberty Party, which morphed years later into the Free Soil Party (later largely absorbed by the Republican Party). Under this ticket, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849.

Though he had an active political life, Chase experienced much personal loss, spurring him to rely more steadfastly on his religious beliefs. He was married three separate times from the 1830s to the '40s, each marriage ending with Chase as a widower: His first wife, Catherine Garniss, died while giving birth to the couple's first child, a daughter who died as an infant; his respective second and third wives, Eliza Smith and Sarah Bella Dunlop Ludlow, both died of tuberculosis. Though Chase had several children, only two survived.

Chase's political ambitions continued to find fruition. He was elected to the Ohio governorship in 1855, becoming the first Ohio governor from the Republican Party, which he'd helped to form. He made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination a few years later, but lost to Abraham Lincoln.

Serving Under Lincoln

In 1860, Chase was re-elected to the Senate, but served a very short term. Soon after, however, he was appointed secretary of the treasury by President Abraham Lincoln—a result of Chase's earlier support for Lincoln at their party convention. Chase took office on March 7, 1861. He had a daunting task ahead of him, as the country was headed into the Civil War and the Union was in dire need of revenue.

Chase implemented a unified nationwide banking system with the National Banking Act, and devised the idea of utilizing paper currency to function as war notes. The "greenback" bills, which came in various denominations, became the basis for the federal paper money system that Americans use today. In order to collect taxes to finance the government's war effort, he also established the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which later became known as the Internal Revenue Service.

Becoming Chief Justice

Lincoln and Chase had a tumultuous working relationship, and Chase resigned as secretary in 1864. (It has been reported that Chase was only threatening his resignation to force a political matter—a ploy he'd used a few times previously—not believing the president would call his bluff.) Chase then made another bid for the presidential nomination, but lost due to Lincoln's popularity.

By the end of 1864, however, Chase had begun a new, highly coveted role as the sixth chief justice of the Supreme Court; Lincoln appointed him to the position after the death of Roger Taney. During his time on the bench, Chase oversaw cases connected to the Reconstruction era, deliberating over arguments that enforced the sanctity of the Union while maintaining his support for African-American civil rights. He also handled the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and made two more unsuccessful bids for the presidency, in 1868 and 1872.


Chase died in New York City on May 7, 1873, at the age of 65, after suffering a stroke. He was buried in Washington, D.C. Chase National Bank was named after him years later, in recognition of his financial accomplishments.

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