Guest speaker honors Chase’s life


Library of Congress

Salmon P. Chase (pictured) openly called for abolition and made the change from hard to paper money.

To many students at Northern Kentucky University, the name Salmon P. Chase is just that, a name. Students and faculty recognize the name, understanding its association with the college of law on campus, but the man behind the name is usually left in the dark.

However, one man is working to shed light on the life and career of Salmon Portland Chase.

Robert Barnett, a constitutional law scholar, delivered a speech commemorating Chase’s achievements. He was a man who would become Secretary of the Treasury under President Abraham Lincoln and eventually sixth Chief Justice of the United States.

Barnett delivered his speech at noon on Feb. 6. In his speech, he talked about Chase’s career both as a lawyer and a politician.

According to Barnett, Chase served as Secretary of the Treasury in President Lincoln’s cabinet from 1861 to 1864, during the Civil War. Chase hired thousands of African Americans and Caucasian females as civil servants and even “placed black males in supervisory positions over white females.” He was the only cabinet head at the time to do this.

“Chase openly called for the abolition of slavery as early as 1862,” said Barnett in his speech. “He privately criticized President Lincoln on being so dilatory on the subject.”

Early on in the Civil War, when Union soldiers overwhelmed hospitals in Washington DC, Chase opened his home as a hospital ward. As the war raged on, Chase was tasked with finding a way to finance it. According to Barnett, this led Chase to convert hard money to paper money.

“Chase saw to it that his face was on the one dollar bill,” said Barnett, earning him a new nickname, “Old Mr. Greenback.”

Chase’s relationship with Lincoln, according to Barnett, initially started out as a warm one. Early in the war, they traveled with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to the coast of Virginia where they would plan a military invasion to secure the port of Norfolk. The three men even went ashore to personally survey possible landing sites for troops.

Their relationship began to corrode due to Chase’s criticism of Lincoln’s indecisiveness and his own ambitions to receive the Republican presidential nomination in 1864. After refusing Chase’s offer of resignation twice, Lincoln accepted his third offer in June of 1864.

After resigning from Lincoln’s cabinet, Chase went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In October of 1864, Chief Justice Rodger B. Taney died and Lincoln named Chase to replace him. Lincoln issued Chase’s nomination on Dec. 6, 1864 and he was confirmed by the Senate that same day. Chase would hold the position of Chief Justice from 1864 until his death in 1873. Chase was a drastic change from the pro-slavery Taney and one of his first acts, according to Barnett, was to allow John Rock to be the first African-American attorney admitted into the Supreme Court bar.

According to Barnett, Chase’s story is not well-known because he was not “a people person.” At a time when presidential candidates were frowned upon for campaigning on their own behalf, he said, Chase wasn’t as gifted as other politicians at disguising his own ambitions.

“Chase aspired to be a man of great principle, and he largely achieved this aspiration. In very few instances can he be found betraying these principles for the purpose of attaining the offices he held or the one office that eluded his grasp,” Barnett said.

According to Barnett, upon his death, the New York Tribune eulogized, “To Mr. Chase more than any other one man belongs the credit of making the anti-slavery feeling, what it had never been before, a power in politics. It had been the sentiment of philanthropists; he made it the inspiration of a great political party.”

Next year will mark the 150 year anniversary of Chase’s signing in as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.