Chase, Salmon P.

Presiding over the first impeachment trial of an U.S. president, Chief Justice Chase exercised judicial restraint in a highly partisan atmosphere. As an influential national figure, he brought political wisdom and moderation to the constitutional issues raised by the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War.

Chase was the eighth child of a Cornish, New Hampshire, couple. His father was a farmer, but several of his uncles were well-educated professionals. One uncle supervised his early education, and an aunt assisted the hard-pressed family by financing further study at Dartmouth College. Young Chase studied law under U.S. attorney general William WirtWirt, William, passed his bar examination in 1829, and began practicing law the next year in Cincinnati, Ohio, where interest in the plight of fugitive slaves ran high.Lincoln, Abraham;nominations to the Court

Salmon P. Chase.

(William F. Cogswell/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

In an early indication of a compelling interest, Chase defended in 1837 a black woman employed by abolitionist James G. Birney but arrested under provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Chase lost the case but impressed observers by his argument that the United States and state governments were mutually independent entities, neither of which could regulate the other. An intensely ambitious man, Chase led the Liberty Party in Ohio in the 1840’s and, as a United States senator from 1849 to 1855, spearheaded opposition to the extension of slavery into the territories.

After contributing to the formation of the Republican Party and serving as the first Republican governor of Ohio (1855-1859), he failed in 1856 and 1860 to gain his party’s nomination for president but served ably as Abraham LincolnLincoln, Abraham;Chase, Salmon P.[Chase, Salmon P.]’s secretary of the treasury from 1861 to 1864. Lincoln saw in Chase a person whose antislavery reputation would appease radicals but who could be expected to promote moderation in the difficult post-Civil War Reconstruction.Chase, Salmon P.;Reconstruction[Reconstruction] On December 6, 1864, a month after Lincoln won reelection with support from Chase, the Senate confirmed Lincoln’s appointment of Chase as chief justice. After taking the oath of office nine days later, Chase twice swore in presidents: Lincoln, on March 4, 1865, and, six weeks afterwards, Andrew Johnson, following Lincoln’s assassination.


Chase’s reputation as a leader added greatly to the Court’s prestige, then at low ebb. He regarded universal male suffrage as the key to ReconstructionReconstruction, but he hoped that the states would take the lead in granting the vote to African American men. Quietly he deflected efforts to try Jefferson DavisDavis, Jefferson, the president of the Confederacy, as a war criminal, for several reasons, one of them constitutional. Article III, he pointed out, provides that trials for crimes other than impeachment take place in the state where the crimes were committed. Not only did he consider such a determination impossible to make, he doubted that an impartial jury of Davis’s peers could be found in any state. Chase prudently discouraged such action until postwar tempers had cooled, and Davis was never tried.

Reconstruction challenged the Court with a series of thorny jurisdictional problems. In Ex parte Milligan[case]Milligan, Ex parte[Milligan, Ex parte] (1866), the justices heard the case of a man charged with organizing a rebellion in Indiana for attempting to free Confederate prisoners in the Midwest and subsequently condemned to death by one of the military courts then operating in some Northern as well as Southern states. The Court ruled that the military commission had no jurisdiction. In another conflict of this type, counsel for a southern newspaper editor arrested by military authorities for libel petitioned unsuccessfully in a district court for a writ of habeas corpus. In 1868 when it appeared to Chase that a Court ruling for the defendant upon appeal might well jeopardize the Reconstruction Act (1867), Chase persuaded his colleagues to postpone a decision. He was much criticized for his seeming to bow to congressional pressure in the earlier phase ofChase, Salmon P.;Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Reconstruction, but when political pressure had eased in 1869, the Court, in Ex parte McCardle, again ruled this action of a military court to be unconstitutional.

Late in Chase’s term as chief justice, Collector v. Day[case]Collector v. Day[Collector v. Day] (1871) attested his continuing interest in preserving the boundaries between federal and state power. Associate Justice Samuel Nelson, in delivering the majority opinion that the federal government exceeded its authority in levying an income tax on the salarySalaries;taxation of of a state judge, drew heavily upon arguments Chase had previously employed in conflicts between state and federal authority.

Impeachment Trial

Chase presided at the first impeachmentImpeachment of presidents trial of a U.S. president in the Senate chamber, a venue otherwise outside the authority of a Supreme Court justice. President Andrew JohnsonJohnson, Andrew had been charged with several offenses, the most significant being violation of the recently enacted Tenure of Office Act (1867) by removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton without congressional approval. Without precedents to go by but equipped with a keen awareness of the extent to which partisan opposition to Johnson was operating in the charges against the president, Chase managed to inject elements of judicial procedure into a trial that he knew would inevitably be governed mainly by Senate rules. He also forced the Senate to grant him a vote to decide the matter in the case of a tie. As it turned out, however, the effort to remove Johnson lost by one vote. Both in this trial and in Chase’s more usual judicial duties, his commanding presence and keen understanding of the art of politics, rather than pure legal scholarship, were his distinguishing assets.

Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Blue, Frederick. Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.
  • Fairman, Charles. Reconstruction and Reunion, 1864-1888. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Kutler, Stanley I. Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
  • Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Niven, John. Salmon P. Chase: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Collector v. Day

Habeas corpus

Impeachment of presidents

McCardle, Ex parte

Milligan, Ex parte


Wirt, William