A modest Chase revival was begun with the publication of the first twentieth-century biography (by Frederick J. Blue) in 1987, and the completion of the project in which the scattered collections of Chase papers have been brought together in a microfilm edition under the direction of John Niven.

Still, I suspect that at least 95 percent of American adults would be unable to identify Salmon Portland Chase; some would probably venture a guess that with such a name he must have had something to do with the Oregon coast. Furthermore, I would not be surprised to learn that 95 percent of those who do know something about Chase got their information from Gore Vidal or William Safire.

When Chase's name is mentioned, my first thoughts are likely to be not of his performance as secretary of the Treasury, but of his hunger for the presidency and of Mark Twain's observation that every parallel of latitude thinks it would have been the Equator if it had its rights. Chase regarded himself as preeminently equatorial among his contemporaries, and that conviction, blossoming periodically into false hope, colored an otherwise distinguished career with unseemliness and frustration.

Niven, in his well-balanced article, quite properly reminds us of Chase's achievements and of what he calls the "brighter side" of the man's character. Chase, in his most admirable role, was one of the giants of the antislavery movement, right along with Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and the latterday John Quincy Adams. As Eric Foner says, no one did more to translate the moral crusade against slavery into political action. And, in the intellectual or ideological portion of the struggle, no one did more to legitimate the antislavery movement by demonstrating that it was in harmony with the Constitution and the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Among all the Republican presidential contenders in 1860, Chase was the one most opposed to slavery as a matter of racial justice. By and large, a man of ability, principle, and personal integrity, Chase seemed to embody the ideal of public virtue associated with classic republicanism. He also looked like a high-minded statesman rather than a grubby politician. "His head," said a visiting English historian, "would be a treasure to any sculptor as a model of benevolence." Page  [End Page 17]

But from the beginning there was also the "darker side," by which Niven presumably means the unattractive side and not some inner darkness of the soul. Along with idealism and social conscience one finds in Chase the young lawyer, as in Chase the older public official, a streak of egocentric opportunism, unrelieved by humor or any significant capacity for self-examination.

Niven is disposed to lay much of the blame for this darker side of Chase upon his stern and domineering Uncle Philander, with whom he lived during his early teens. That is an impressionable time of life, no doubt, but one wonders how much of the total of his character formation was packed into those three years. Perhaps it would be better to begin with a cultural explanation of Chase's behavior before trying to extract psychological insights from rather slender evidence. In a review of Blue's biography, Gerard Sorin writes: "Chase can be perceived as quintessentially antebellum American, representing what historians have sometimes seen as two separate, crucial dimensions of American civilization: social reform and individual promotion." [1]

Much that Chase said and did can indeed be understood as typical of his age and of the intensely political milieu in which he functioned. Furthermore, Chase at his worst, scheming to displace Lincoln, is to some extent defensible in situational terms. By the time of the Civil War, a single-term presidency was apparently becoming the rule. For one reason or another, no president after Andrew Jackson had been reelected, and none after Martin Van Buren had even been renominated by his own party. Was the present awkward incumbent to be an exception? "In 1863–64," writes David Donald, "it seemed that the Lincoln administration was a failure.... If Lincoln was to be replaced, it was natural that party leaders should think of Chase as his successor. And it was equally reasonable Chase should so consider himself."[2]

Once these things have been said, however, it must be added that Chase's behavior was at times outrageous and that it reflected certain unfortunate personal traits, which, however he may have acquired them, made him, in his relations with Lincoln, a treacherous associate. Foremost among those traits, in addition to his restless ambition, was vanity of the kind that shuts out self-criticism and Page  [End Page 18] indulges self-deception. For instance, he insisted that he had never used the patronage of the Treasury to serve his own political aspirations. "I should despise myself," he declared, "if I felt capable of appointing or removing a man for the sake of the Presidency." But with Chase, says Donald, "self-delusion was almost a talent, for his diaries show that he did appoint those who favored his ambitions. To reconcile his theory and his practice one must put himself into the Secretary's position—and then what better test of a subordinate's intelligence or loyalty could there be than an appreciation of the outstanding merits of his chief?" [3]

Characteristically, when the open break with Lincoln finally came, Chase was unable to discover any fault in his own behavior. At the Treasury Department on June 30, 1864, he recorded in his diary, "I found a letter from the President accepting my resignation, and putting the acceptance on the ground of the difference between us indicating a degree of embarrassment in our official relations which could not be continued or sustained consistently with the public service. I had found a good deal of embarrassment from him but what he had found from me I could not imagine...."[4]

His vanity made Chase unusually vulnerable to the flattery of his followers and unrealistic in his expectations of what they could do for him. We are perhaps too disposed to see Chase, in his pursuit of the presidency, as a wire-puller busily lining up support, or, in Lincoln's famous image, as a blue-bottle fly, buzzing about laying eggs in every rotten spot he could find. More often than not, it seems to me, Chase's behavior was reactive, even passive, allowing others like the notorious Samuel Pomeroy to take the initiative and manipulate him for their own purposes.

A case in point is his flirtation with a nomination for Congress in the summer of 1864, soon after his departure from the Lincoln cabinet. Political friends in his home district of Cincinnati assured him that he could have the nomination if he worked for it. Chase replied that he was unwilling to be a competitor, but would accept a unanimous nomination. At the nominating convention, his supporters read a statement to that effect, but they were badly outmaneuvered, and, to Chase's mortification, his opponent was nominated by a 2–1 margin.

Chase was in many ways a great man, who, as Lincoln acknowledged, might well have made a very good president. The elements Page  [End Page 19] of greatness in him were diminished, however, by an excessively self-centered view of the political universe, one that stands out even in an age having more than its share of egocentrics. It was John Ruskin who once remarked, "When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package." Page  [End Page 20]


  1. Gerard Sorin, review of Frederick J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics in Journal of American History 75 (1988–89): 952. return to text
  2. David Herbert Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York: Longmans, Green, 1954), 24–25.return to text
  3. Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet, 25, 26.return to text
  4. Ibid., 223.return to text