Every day, we are inundated with the names of people from the past. When you see an advertisement selling insurance for Lincoln Financial Group, drive down a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, or read a book review in the Washington Examiner, you see recognizable names that call to mind stories associated with these historical figures. These titles serve as small monuments to their accomplishments and ask us to remember them.
Other times, however, we witness prominent tributes to figures who have faded from our collective memory. In metropolitan Detroit, where I live, there is a well-traveled thoroughfare named John R Road. When the road got its name, few needed an explanation. Today, almost no one knows who John R was (a Detroit mayor), but everyone knows the street. Only the shadow of the testament to the person remains. The name took on a different meaning.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Salmon P. Chase. If John Thompson had used Chase’s full name when he dedicated his new bank to him in 1877, maybe more people today would be familiar with his work. Instead, the bank president just called it Chase National Bank of the City of New York. Today, when our credit cards say “Chase” on them, we picture a bank. Luckily for us, biographer Walter Stahr has picked up the slack and brought back into the spotlight one of the political titans of the Civil War era.
Stahr has followed up biographies of two other members of Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, William Seward and Edwin Stanton, with an incredibly researched and detailed account of the life of the secretary of the treasury and the chief justice. Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival reads like the antebellum political version of Forrest Gump, but with the main character being cunning, pragmatic, and ambitious rather than an unsuspecting bumpkin. Chase wanted to leave an impact and succeeded so thoroughly that his mark seems natural to the way we live in contemporary times.
Chase’s fingerprints were everywhere during his lifetime, which is why Stahr uses over 800 pages to fit it all in. As a young man, for example, Chase worked at the Bank of the United States during Andrew Jackson’s Bank War. Alexis de Tocqueville interviewed him as part of the study that led to Democracy in America. During middle age, he helped establish the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties, routinely defended fugitive slaves in court from slave catchers, and served in the Senate as it erupted into the turmoil of the early 1850s. He was also the one who came up with the first GOP slogan: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” and he played a crucial role in the campaign of 1860 that saw Lincoln win the White House.
The book details how, while leading the Treasury Department, Chase guided the nation through the financial difficulties of paying for the Union Army, advised on plans for reconstruction, and ushered in the national banking system. A former lawyer himself, Stahr’s final chapters are a legal history of Chase's tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Chase welcomed the first African American to the bar of the Supreme Court, presided over a presidential impeachment, and set legal precedents still relied on today. His rulings have been used in court cases ranging from the constitutionality of Obamacare to whether terrorists could be held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay. Remarkably, Chase accomplished all of this before his death at the age of 65.
Stahr does a captivating job detailing how Chase was a politician’s politician whose success demonstrated the effectiveness of practical politics. Throughout his career, he participated in the conventions of the Whigs, Democrats, Liberty Party, Free Soilers, and Republicans. As he climbed up the ladder of power, the former Ohio governor kept his core principles and goals intact while building a winning coalition. Regardless of party identification, he always supported democracy, promoted racial equality under the law, and worked to destroy the power of the slave-holding South. He was a realistic and patient radical.
Chase loved his country and hated slavery. In challenging black laws in Ohio and the Slave Power in Washington, he made appeals to the basic principles of the founding. He once said, for instance, that “all legal distinctions between individuals of the same community, founded in any such circumstance as color, origin, or the like, are hostile to the genius of our institutions and incompatible with the true theory of American liberty.” He believed the institutions of American democracy did not need overturning — they required expansion. Throughout Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, Stahr reveals how Chase’s dedication to the highest ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were his most potent weapons on behalf of freedom, equality, and democracy.
The Ohioan should be considered a role model to any political activist who wants to see real change. He built connections all over the nation through avid letter-writing and personal associations, helped lay the foundation for a successful antislavery party by supporting compromises among regional coalitions, and toed the line between being a radical and pragmatic liberal when the times called for it. He believed that social reform needed to happen through the democratic practice of finding likable candidates, marshaling votes, and winning elections. Chase understood that leadership meant convincing others to join your cause even if they did not agree with you completely.
It’s a lesson worth remembering from a book that merits reading.
Carl Paulus is a historian from Michigan and author of The Slaveholding Crisis: The Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War.