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Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival

Author(s):Stahr, Walter
Reviewer(s):Flaherty, Jane

Published by EH.Net (June 2022).

Walter Stahr. Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. x + 836 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-5011-9923-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jane Flaherty, retired Visiting Lecturer, Texas A&M University, and Instructor, Blinn College.

 

Of all the members of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”’ few have been criticized as much as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Earlier biographers and chroniclers of the time suggested he was “inordinately ambitious” (Niven, 190), “cold and aloof” (Blue, 322), having “no experience in finance,” and therefore “a tremendous liability” (Thomson, 24). Walter Stahr, an attorney and the author of four historical biographies, provides a needed corrective to these interpretations of a pivotal person in American economic history.

Chase was born in New Hampshire in 1808. His family joined the waves of migrants who left New England for western opportunities, settling in Cincinnati. Chase “found his life work” in 1841 as an anti-slavery political leader who dedicated his career to uplifting African Americans, first as runaway slaves and then as free citizens (86). “Freedom is national; slavery is local and sectional,” Chase stated in 1850, the sentiment that became the foundation of the Republican Party (157). Chase served as a U.S. Senator representing Ohio as a Free Soil-Democrat (1849-1855); Governor of Ohio (1855-1860); Treasury Secretary in President Lincoln’s administration (1861-1864); then Chief Justice of the United States (from 1864 until his death in 1873).

Chase has long puzzled historians. His multiple party affiliations have been attributed to his ambition to become president (he was thwarted in 1860, 1864, and 1868). Stahr, however, shows that Chase helped create three different political parties (the Liberty Party, the Free-Soil Party, and the Republican Party), all with the primary focus on opposition to the expansion of slavery (not abolition). Although young Chase “imbibed some federalist ideas – especially about banks and commerce” (9), “revered Jefferson” (28), declared himself a Whig in his political youth, and was a strong critic of President Andrew Jackson, Chase later embraced many of the tenets of Jacksonian political economy: currency reform, skepticism of state banks, and tariffs for revenue, not protection. As governor of Ohio, Chase called for creation of a state railroad regulation commission, an idea far ahead of its time. Chase advocated frugality in governance; as part of this effort, he and Francis Spinner hired women to work in the Treasury Department as a way to keep personnel costs down.  This helped open “white collar” work for women. Stahr ably argues that as a legal representative, then director, of the Lafayette Bank, combined with his role as governor of Ohio, Chase had far more experience in fiscal policy than most antebellum Treasury secretaries.

Chase’s actions during and after the Civil War seem to contradict his earlier economic beliefs. Although frugal and averse to protective tariffs, Chase oversaw the largest expansion of the federal budget and rise in tariff rates in U.S. history at that time, the growth of an unprecedented federal debt, the introduction of “Greenbacks” (fiat currency), and the launch of the internal revenue system that remains in place to this day. Hiring Jay Cooke to market over $1 billion in war bonds raised questions of corruption and a congressional inquiry. Cooke and Chase developed an intimate relationship. Cooke gave personal loans to Chase and frequently served as a host for Chase’s daughters when they traveled. Cooke also gave expensive gifts, though not direct bribes, to Chase and his family. Yet Chase considered himself very principled and never broke the ethical rules of the time. Chase’s successor in the Treasury Department, William P. Fessenden, rehired Cooke to market bonds because Cooke’s efforts were cost-effective.

In another incongruity, Chase established the national banking system that, by the end of the nineteenth century, concentrated power in the New York banking community. Stahr skillfully shows how these developments occurred, yet unfortunately shies from considering the considerable impact of these changes.

Chase ended his career as Chief Justice of the United States. Two Supreme Court cases in particular demonstrate the contradictions of Chase’s legacy. In Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), “Old Greenbacks” wrote the majority opinion declaring that debts taken before the Civil War could not be paid with legal tender notes created during the war (this decision was later reversed). On the other hand, in Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1869) Chase wrote the majority opinion upholding a 10 percent tax on state banknotes. “… if a particular tax bears heavily upon a corporation, or a class of corporations, it cannot … be pronounced contrary to the Constitution.” (618) Here Chase vigorously defended his actions as Treasury Secretary. As with many Republican politicians, the exigencies of war created demands that forced Chase to moderate his economic beliefs for the greater goals of prosecuting the war and ending slavery.

Stahr portrays a more humane Chase who was deeply religious, but not sanctimonious; a man who suffered multiple personal tragedies. By the age of 56, he had buried four children, nine siblings and his parents (467). He was devoted to his surviving daughters, Kate and Nettie. They brought him joy and sorrow (both married unfaithful alcoholics). During the Civil War, Kate emerged as a Washington, D.C. socialite whose unstable marriage, expensive tastes, and political ambitions often vexed Chase.

Although EH.Net readers might wish for more structural economic analysis, Stahr’s book provides an important addition to the literature on the political and economic history of the Civil War era. It should be read for a fuller understanding of this dedicated political and intellectual leader in the anti-slavery and early civil rights advocacy.

References

Blue, Frederick J. Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1987.

Kearns Goodwin, Doris. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster (paperback edition), 2006.

Niven, John. Salmon P. Chase: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thomson, David K. Bonds of War: How Civil War Financial Agents Sold the World on The Union. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022.

 

Jane Flaherty (jflaherty@tamu.edu) is a retired Visiting Lecturer at Texas A&M University, and an Instructor at Blinn College. She is currently working on a study of Justin S. Morrill and the fiscal changes that occurred during the Civil War.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century