Salmon Portland Chase, born January 13, 1808 in Cornish, New Hampshire, was a great political authority and a great judge. But he was an even greater abolitionist lawyer.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 89th birthday on January 15, let us remember what he wrote about the law in his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail when he proclaimed, “There are two types of laws. There are just laws and there are unjust laws.... An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law.... One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Without explicitly saying so, MLK was referring to people like Chase, an abolitionist who relentlessly disobeyed and battled slavery laws in and out of court.
Despite Chase’s historic work in freeing many escaped Blacks and helping to end slavery, many people- especially our people- know very little about him. Well, I’m gonna end that right now with this “Ten Important Things You Didn’t Know About Salmon P. Chase” list:
1. Chase represented so many Black escapees pro bono and provided so much legal advice to Black and white Underground Railroad activists pro bono that he came to be known as “The Attorney General for Fugitive Slaves.”
2. In the 1847 Jones v. Van Zandt case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Chase presented ingenious and novel legal arguments against all fugitive slave laws throughout the various states and territories. He represented a white man named John Van Zandt who, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was sued by a so-called slavemaster for hiding that so-called slavemaster’s human property and helping them escape to freedom.
Since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 seemed inapplicable on technical grounds and since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had not yet been enacted, Chase argued that slave laws were state and territorial laws, meaning they didn’t apply when a Black person left a slave state or territory and arrived in a free state or territory. Although the racist Supreme Court rejected that logically irrefutable argument, that argument did lay the foundation for the ultimate invalidation of all slave laws in 1865 and 1868 with the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments respectively.
3. After President Abe Lincoln appointed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chase in 1865 personally got John Rock formally admitted as the first Black lawyer to argue a case in that court. By the way, Rock was also an abolitionist, physician, teacher, and Philly dentist. In addition, Rock created the phrase “Black Power” in connection with an anti-slavery speech in 1858.
4. When Chase served as Chief Justice from 1864-1873, he replaced Roger Taney, the avowed racist who died in 1864 and who wrote the notorious Dred Scott decision in 1857.
5. Chase had one of the most extensive political careers in U.S. history, beginning as a Cincinnati City Councilperson in 1840 then Ohio’s U.S. Senator from 1849-1855, Ohio Governor from 1856-1860, and U.S. Senator again in 1861 for just two days before serving as U.S. Treasury Secretary from 1861-1864.
6. Later, as a result of his brilliantly innovative work as Treasury Secretary, during which time he created strategies to finance the North’s successful anti-slavery battles against the South, Chase’s photograph since 1928 has been on the $10,000 bill.
7. Chase helped to create the Republican Party in 1854, back when it wasn’t racist. He was a key member of a powerful wing of the party known as the “Radical Republicans,” which demanded the immediate obliteration of slavery. It should be noted that Lincoln was part of the moderate wing of the Republicans.
8. Despite the fact that Lincoln appointed Chase as Treasury Secretary and later as Chief Justice, they really didn’t like each other. Lincoln considered Chase an impractical hothead in the way he opposed slavery and Chase considered Lincoln a cowardly wimp in the way he opposed slavery. But Lincoln needed Chase because Chase was influential as a leader of the Republican Party and Chase needed Lincoln because, as President, Lincoln was influential as the official leader of the party.
9. Chase’s main dispute with Lincoln was Lincoln would never publicly state that emancipation was a major purpose of the Civil War. That was apparently because Lincoln was afraid to alienate those of his wealthy Northern backers who were racist and the few wealthy Southern backers he had who supported him on the “down low” but also were racist.
10. During cabinet meetings of the Lincoln administration, Chase, as Treasury Secretary, was the only member who demanded the right for Blacks to vote. I should mention that although Lincoln was on the right side of history in the Civil War and kinda/sorta did want to end slavery, he never thought Blacks were equal to whites. In fact, Lincoln said in 1858, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races... I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters... of Negroes....”
Chase became an ancestor (as an honorary Black man like John Brown) when he passed away in 1873. But instead of mourning his death, we celebrate his life. We do that on January 13 by saying, “Happy 210th Birthday, Brother Salmon!”
We also do it by remembering his famous quote, which is “I am too earnest, too anti-slavery... (and) too radical.” Let’s all be like Salmon P. Chase.