Chase was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, the ninth of eleven children. At the age of
twelve, he was placed in the care of his uncle, Philander Chase, a well-known Episcopal
bishop in Ohio and, later, founder of Kenyon College. After studying at the bishops
school, followed by a year at Cincinnati College, young Chase returned to New Hampshire
and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1826. He moved to Washington, D.
C., where he taught school and studied law under William Wirt, the U.S. Attorney General.
Chase passed the bar in 1829 and opened a law practice in Cincinnati. He won praise for
his annotated collection of the Statutes of Ohio (3 vols.), which soon became the
authoritative reference work in the state judicial system.
In 1834, he defended
abolitionist editor and activist James Birney for harboring a runaway slave. Chase became
convinced that slavery was a sin and that blacks deserved equal civil rights. He soon
began defending the slaves themselves, causing his opponents to label him the
"Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves." He was one of the organizers of the
Liberty party and, in 1848, of the Free-Soil party in Ohio. In 1849, a coalition of
Free-Soil and Democratic legislators elected him to represent Ohio in the U. S. Senate.
During his single term, Chase introduced the successful Pacific Railroad Act and
vehemently condemned the fugitive slave bill that became part of the Compromise of 1850.
His opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 provoked him to organize the
Anti-Nebraska party in Ohio, which soon became the new Republican party. He was elected
governor of Ohio in 1855 as a Republican and reelected in 1857. As governor he advocated
public education, prison reform, and womens rights.
Chases political goal was to become President of the United States, but he failed
to gain the Republican nomination in either 1856, 1860, or 1864. The Ohio legislature
decided to return him to the U. S. Senate in 1861, where he served but two days before
resigning to become Lincolns Secretary of the Treasury. During the Civil War, he
faced the daunting task of financing the Union war effort and maintaining the
nations solvency. He created a national banking system, issued fiat money, and
established an Internal Revenue Division. Chase was a constant critic of Lincolns
policies, inundating the President with unsolicited advice and proffering his resignation
four times in fits of pique. In October 1864, Lincoln finally accepted the
Secretarys resignation, but in December appointed him as the new Chief Justice of
the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1873.
In one of his first acts as Chief Justice, Chase appointed John Rock as the first
African-American attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court. In March 1868, Chase
presided over the removal trial of the impeached President Johnson in the U.S. Senate. The
Chief Justice brought to the trial a much needed air of dignity and impartiality. As the
first impeachment trial of a President under the Constitution, Chase realized that the
procedure would set important precedents. He insisted that the Senate conduct itself as a
court of law, not as a legislative body.
Chase was unable to forge a solid majority during his tenure as Chief Justice and often
found himself in dissent on such important cases as Ex parte Milligan (1866), Bradwell v.
Illinois (1873) and the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). In Texas v. White (1869), however, he
authored the majority opinion that ruled secession unconstitutional and reaffirmed the
Congressional right to guarantee republican government in the states. This decision
essentially endorsed Congressional control over the Reconstruction process.
In 1868, Chase sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic party, but was
passed over because of his stance in favor of voting rights for black men. Thereafter he
largely withdrew from partisan politics, although he opposed Grants reelection in
1872. Chase died in New York City.