The Moral Journey of a Political Abolitionist: Salmon P. Chase and His Critics

By Blue, Frederick J. | Civil War History, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Moral Journey of a Political Abolitionist: Salmon P. Chase and His Critics


Blue, Frederick J., Civil War History


Salmon P. Chase has never enjoyed a positive reputation among contemporaries, historians and others who have studied his life. Although some have grudgingly recognized his achievements as an antislavery politician, treasury secretary, or chief justice, most have emphasized his political expediency and burning desire to be president as taking precedence over principle. Above all, most interpretations show him as a political opportunist willing to do virtually anything to promote his selfish goals. Few have understood his deep commitment to abolitionism and racial equality, arguing instead that any apparently altruistic goals were designed to disguise his desire to forward his own reputation and flatter his enormous ego. Nor have critics recognized the link between principle and ambition, which for Chase meant he knew that to act on his moral beliefs he had to have a position of power. Ambition and ethics coexisted harmoniously in his political life.

Chases contemporaries and historians alike have typically emphasized the darker side of his reputation and hence have rarely recognized his substantial achievements and commitment to antislavery. Liberty Party leaders such as Gerrit Smith and William Goodell, many Free Soilers in the late 1840s, and later Republicans refused to see him as anything more than a scheming politician.

Liberty Party leaders were among the first to question Chase's motives when he sought to broaden the party's appeal and move it toward coalition with antislavery elements among Democrats and Whigs. Seeking to drop the candidate favored by party purists, James G. Birney, Chase wanted a more prominent figure who would appeal to a broader northern electorate. Gerrit Smith and William Goodell also resented Chase as a newcomer to the party, for he had remained a Whig in 1840 as they struggled to establish the third party. Most damaging was his role in Ohio politics in 1849, when critics believed he secured his own election to the U.S. Senate at the expense of more deserving leaders, like Joshua Giddings, and sacrificed antislavery principle, in doing so. During the 1850s, he appeared willing to stop at nothing to win a Republican nomination for president in 1856 and then 1860, cynically using his election to the Ohio governorship as a mere stepping stone to the presidency. After Republicans denied him that place in 1860, he loyally supported Abraham Lincoln's campaign and was awarded leadership of the Treasury Department. As a cabinet member, critics believed, he refused to accept Lincoln's authority, regarding himself as more qualified and worthy of the Presidency. His struggles with Lincoln climaxed in 1864, when he challenged the president for the Republican nomination and then resigned his cabinet post. His efforts had intensified the dislike of other cabinet members, like Gideon Welles and Edward Bates. When Lincoln saw beyond Chases ambition and selected him to be chief justice, Chase persisted in using his office to forward his own interests, even maneuvering to secure a Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1868. (1)

From James Ford Rhodes's work in the nineteenth century to modern interpretations, this negative tradition has continued--culminating in Doris Kearns Goodwin's acclaimed study of Lincoln and his leading cabinet members, Team of Rivals. In describing Lincoln's political genius, Goodwin speaks positively about Chases rivals William H. Seward, Edwin B. Stanton, and Edward Bates but can find few redeeming virtues in the treasury secretary. Goodwin is among the most recent historians to take Chase to task for his unbridled ambition, quoting Lincoln's assertion that Chase had become "irritable and uncomfortable" because "he thinks he has become indispensible to the country" Other historians who have emphasized his ambition as outweighing his devotion to principle include Richard Sewell, in his study of antislavery political parties, and David Donald. The latter, in his monumental biography of Charles Sumner, noted that Chase's "personal ambition stained his eloquence" Stephen B.

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