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Chapter 7: Salmon Portland Chase

If I were asked to name the man to whom the colored people of this country, who were slaves, or were liable to become slaves, are under the greatest obligation for their freedom, I would unhesitatingly say Salmon Portland Chase.

If I were asked to name the man who was the strongest and most useful factor in the Government during the great final contest that ended in the emancipation of the black man, I would say Salmon Portland Chase.

In expressing the opinions above given, no reproach for Abraham Lincoln, nor for any of the distinguished members of his Cabinet, is intended or implied. Inferiority to Salmon P. Chase was not a disgrace. Physically he rose above all his official associates, which was no discredit to them, and in much the same way he towered intellectually and administratively. His was the most trying, the most difficult position, in the entire circle of public departments. It was easy to get men to fight the battles of the Union if there was money to pay them. It was easy to furnish ships and arms and supplies in sufficient quantity, notwithstanding the terrible drain of the greatest of civil wars, as long as the [60] funds held out. Everything depended on the treasury. Failure there meant irretrievable disaster. It would not answer to have any serious mistakes in that quarter, and in fact no fatal mistakes were there made. In all other departments there were failures and blunders, but the financial department met every emergency and every requisition. Chase's financial policy it was that carried the country majestically through the war, and that afterwards paid the nation's debts.

There is a circumstance that has not been mentioned, as far as the writer knows, by any of Mr. Chase's biographers, which seems to him to be significant and worth referring to. During the Civil War, Walter Bagehot was editor of the Economist, the great English financial journal. His opinion in financial matters was regarded as the highest authority. It was accepted as infallible. He discussed the plans of Mr. Chase with great elaborateness and great severity. He predicted that they were all destined to failure, and proved this theoretically to his own satisfaction and the satisfaction of many others. The result showed that Mr. Chase was right all the time, and the great English economist was wrong.

The entrance of such a man into the Abolitionist movement marked an era in its history. It was the thing most needed. He gave it a leader who, of all men then living, was most competent for leadership. From that time he was its Moses.

The greatest service rendered to the Abolition cause by Salmon P. Chase was in pushing it forward on political lines. There was a contest for the mastery [61] of the Government from the hour he took command. The movement was to be slow, sometimes halting and apparently falling back, in some respects insignificant, in all respects desperate, but there was to be no permanent defeat and no compromise.

The espousal of Abolitionism by Mr. Chase was a remarkable circumstance. He was not an enthusiast like Garrison and Lundy and many other Anti-Slavery pioneers, but precisely the opposite. He was cold-blooded and cool-headed, a deliberate and conservative man. His speeches were described as giving light but no heat. His sympathies were seemingly weak, but his sense of justice was immense. Apparently, he opposed slavery because it was wrong rather than because it was cruel. He had a big body, a big head, and a big conscience, the combination making a strong man and a good fighter.

That he did, in fact, sympathize with the slaves was shown by his professional work in their behalf, more particularly in pleading without fee or other reward the cases of escaped fugitives in the courts. So numerous were his engagements in this regard that his antagonists spoke of him sneeringly as the “Attorney-General for runaway niggers.” Upon some of his Anti-Slavery cases he bestowed an immense amount of work. His argument in the case of Van Zant — the original of Van Tromp in Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin,--an old man who was prosecuted and fined until he was financially ruined for giving a “lift” in his farm wagon to a slave family on its way to Canada, was said at the time to [62] have been the most able so far made in the Supreme Court of the United States. That and other similar utterances by Mr. Chase were published for popular reading, and were widely distributed by friends of the cause.

It is possible that, in performing this arduous labor, Mr. Chase, who was not without personal ambition, was able, with his great native sagacity, to foresee, although it must have been but dimly, the possibilities of political development and official promotion, but at the same time, for the same reason, he could the more clearly realize the wearisome, heart-breaking struggle that was before him.

It was an enormous sacrifice that he made. Journeymen printers and saddlers, like Garrison and Lundy, who had never had as much as one hundred dollars at one time in their lives, and who had no social position and no influential kinsfolks, had little to lose. But it was very different with Chase. He had a profession that represented great wealth. He had distinguished and aristocratic family connections. He had a high place in society. All these he risked and largely lost.

In speaking of his sacrifices at that time in a subsequent letter to a friend, he wrote:

Having resolved on my political course, I devoted all the time and means I could command to the work of spreading the principles and building up the organization of the party of constitutional freedom then inaugurated. Sometimes, indeed, all I could do seemed insignificant, while the labors I had to perform, and the demand upon my very limited resources by necessary contributions, taxed severely all my abilities.


The writer hereof was a witness to one incident that showed something of the loss that Mr. Chase sustained in a business way because of his principles. While a law student in a country village he was sent down to Cincinnati to secure certain testimony in the form of affidavits. During his visit he called at Mr. Chase's law office, introduced himself, and was very pleasantly received. He noticed that there was a notary public in the office.

Among other instructions he had been directed to get the affidavit of a leading business man in Cincinnati, a railroad president. The document was prepared and signed, but there was no one at hand before whom it could be sworn to. The writer remarked that he knew where there was a notary in a near-by office. We proceeded to Mr. Chase's chambers, and were about to enter when my companion noticed the name on the door. He fell back as if he had been struck in the face. “The Abolitionist,” he exclaimed, “I would n't enter his place for a hundred dollars!” We went elsewhere for our business, and on the way my companion expressed himself about Mr. Chase. “What a pity it is,” he said, “that that young man is ruining himself. He is a bright man,” he went on, “and I employed him professionally until he went daft on the subject of freeing the niggers whom the Lord made for the purpose of serving the white people.”

Like pretty much all the early Abolitionists, Mr. Chase had a taste of mob violence. He had one singular experience. When the mob destroyed the printing establishment of James G. Birney in Cincinnati, Chase mingled with the crowd. He [64] discovered that personal violence to Mr. Birney was contemplated and that his life was in danger. He made all haste to Birney's residence and gave him warning of his peril. Then he took his stand in the doorway of the building and calmly awaited the coming of the rabble. Those who knew Chase will remember that in size he was almost a giant, and his countenance had a stern, determined look. The multitude, finding itself thus unexpectedly confronted, paused and entered into a parley that gave the hunted man an opportunity to reach a place of safety.

Chase had an appointment to speak in the village in which the writer lived, and the opposers of his cause arranged to give him a warm reception. Something prevented his attendance, and a very mild and amiable old clergyman from an adjoining town, who took his place, received the shower-bath of uncooked eggs that had been intended for the Cincinnati Abolitionist.

Chase's great work for the Anti-Slavery cause was in projecting and directing it on independent political lines. Up to that time most Anti-Slavery people opposed separate party action. Garrison and his Liberator violently denounced such action. Moral suasion was urged as the panacea. Chase himself had not been a “third party” man. In 1840, when there was an Abolition ticket in the field, headed by his personal friend, James G. Birney, he had not supported it. But soon afterwards, becoming firmly convinced that Anti-Slavery people had nothing to hope for from either of the old parties, he set about the work of building a new one. The undertaking [65] was with no mental reservation on his part. When he put his hand to that plow there was no looking back, notwithstanding that a rougher or more stony field, and one less promising of returns for the laborer than that before him, would be difficult to imagine.

In 1841 he headed a call for a convention at Columbus, the State capital, to organize the Liberty party in the State of Ohio, and at the same time nominate a State ticket. Less than a hundred sympathizers responded to the call, and the ticket put in nomination received less than one thousand votes.

Among the attendants at the Columbus meeting was a near kinsman of the author. On his return, in describing the proceedings, he said that pretty much everything was directed by a Mr. Chase (Salamander Chase was his name, he said), a young Cincinnati lawyer. That young man, he declared, would yet make a mark in the world.

From that time every important move was directed by Chase. He prepared the calls for important meetings. He wrote their addresses and their platforms. He made the leading speeches. He presided at the great convention at Buffalo in 1848, which formulated the “Free-soil” party-successor to the Liberty party-and wrote the platform which it adopted.

In speaking of Chase's share in the independent organization of this time, William M. Evarts says: “He must be awarded the full credit of having understood, resolved upon, planned, organized, and executed this political movement.”

The movement thus conducted by Mr. Chase was [66] slow and tremendously laborious, but it was effective. In the presidential elections of 1844 and 1848 it held the balance of power and turned the scale to further its purposes. In 1852 it shattered and destroyed one of the old pro-slavery parties, and became the second party in the country instead of the third. In eight years more it was the first.

The charge has been made against Mr. Chase that, while a member of Lincoln's Cabinet, he aspired to supersede his chief in the Presidency. But did he not have a right to seek the higher office, especially when the policy pursued by its incumbent did not meet his full approval? He merely shared the sentiment that was then entertained by nearly all the radical Anti-Slavery people of the country.

It is not unlikely that Chase felt somewhat envious of Lincoln. After, as he stated in his letter of congratulation to Mr. Lincoln on his first election, he had given nineteen years of continuous and exhausting labor to the freedom movement, it would be but natural that he should feel aggrieved when he saw that the chief credit of that movement was likely to go to one who had, to his own exclusion, come up slowly and reluctantly at a later day to its support. If he were somewhat jealous, it would be hard not to sympathize with him.

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