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The President’s Foil

REVIEW: 'Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival'

President Abraham Lincoln with members of his cabinet (from left), Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, Montgomery Blair, the postmaster general, William Seward, secretary of state, Caleb Smith, secretary of the interior, Edward Bates, attorney general and Edwin Stanton, secretary of state for war. / Getty Images
• February 20, 2022 5:00 am

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Salmon P. Chase gets pushed around in most Civil War writing—and by belligerents on both sides. Shelby Dade Foote, a Lee-worshiping sacred soil sniffer, cast Chase as a jealous and petulant schemer in his epic three-volume history of the war. Lincolnista Doris Kearns Goodwin is no kinder in Team of Rivals, naming "insatiable need for acknowledgement and the trappings of success" as the principle characteristics of Chase's personality.

It was kind of Walter Stahr to give poor Salmon a reappraisal in Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival. This new biography of the Treasury secretary turned chief justice of the United States is a welcome addition to Stahr's growing dominion in Lincolndom. It also greatly complicates the image of Chase familiar to most readers of the period and constitutes an understated but thorough indictment of popular Civil War histories.

In all fairness to the Footes and the Goodwins of the world, every author is entitled to their foils, and Chase makes an irresistible comparative for Honest Abe. All are agreed that Chase was lusty for the presidency in his public life. And he carried himself with a rigid Protestant austerity that he inherited from his uncle, an Episcopalian bishop. It's easy to draw out Lincoln's lively and forthright qualities in contrast to such a severe figure. Nor have these writers ignored Chase's virtues. His bona fides as a liberty man and true friend of black equality are universally accepted. But where Chase is concerned, the ugly gets more attention than the good as an absolute rule. And as Stahr elaborates, Chase was too good a man to deserve his lot.

Start with Chase's law practice in Cincinnati, separated from slaveholding Kentucky by the Ohio River. His proximity to Kentucky brought him into contact with runaways and antislavery agitators. To Tocqueville's eye, the banks of the Ohio were the "final demonstration" that free society is more prosperous and populous than slave society. Chase was gradually converted to the liberty cause, and it likely had something to do with the balance of the evidence right there in front of him.

Having resolved in favor of the oppressed, Chase crafted influential and widely circulated attacks on the federal fugitive slave law. He represented so many runaways that his adversaries dubbed him "the attorney general for fugitive slaves." In 1836, he stood alone against a racist mob looking to punish the abolitionist publisher James Birney.

Consider also Chase's prolific political correspondence. Pursuing office in Ohio, he trolled for support from commercialist Whigs, populist Democrats, nativist Know Nothings, indeed any constituency that might join with him. This is usually counted as a strike against Chase, evidence he would throw in with anyone to advance his political prospects. Stahr has a less cynical read. He sees Chase working gladly with all comers to resist "that great Slave Interest, wielding a capital invested in human beings." This Chase is an apostle of human freedom who, in the manner of St. Paul, became "all things to all, to save at least some."

Stahr also marshals evidence that we've misconstrued one of the most famous crises of the Lincoln administration. He argues persuasively that Chase had nothing to do with an ill-fated congressional ploy to oust William H. Seward from his post as secretary of state. Leading accounts portray Chase as master of that conspiracy. Stahr presents compelling evidence from the correspondence of Sen. William Fessenden of Maine, one of the congressional conspirators, that seems to exonerate Chase wholly.

To be sure, Chase is no hagiography. Stahr needles his subject where he deserves it, albeit in his passive and lawyerly style.

"The salmon is a queer fish, very shy and very wary," the New York Herald said of our man in 1864. "Often it appears to avoid the bait just before gulping it down, and even after it is hooked, it has to be allowed plenty of line and must be played carefully before it can be safely landed."

Chase vindicated the metaphor four years later. Having passed a decade as a Republican, he quietly pursued the Democratic nomination for president in 1868 from his perch as chief justice. The Democratic convention, convening that year in New York, adopted a platform that opposed black suffrage and denounced the reconstruction laws as unconstitutional, null, and void. It was a loathsome platform that repudiated Chase's long-held principles of equality. That he pursued the nomination anyway is a disgrace, and many of his contemporaries said so. Frederick Douglass compared Chase to a certain fallen angel—better to reign in hell than serve on the Supreme Court.

Hell is the domain Chase would have inherited in 1868. The South was on fire with race hate for freed blacks, and it raged for decades more. Chase believed he could steer the Democrats toward a rapprochement with civil rights and establish an enduring bipartisan commitment to black equality. One wonders if we might have been spared a good deal of agony had Chase prevailed at the New York convention.

He did quite enough short of the presidency. Let the historians reserve their invective for someone who deserves it, like that bum George McClellan.

Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival
by Walter Stahr
Simon & Schuster, 848 pp., $35