Salmon P. Chase was one of the preeminent men of 19th-century America. A majestic figure, tall and stately, Chase was a leader in the fight to end slavery, a brilliant administrator who as Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury provided crucial funding for a vastly expensive war, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the turmoil of Reconstruction, and the presiding officer of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Yet he was also a complex figure. As John Niven reveals in this magisterial biography, Chase was a paradoxical blend of idealism and ambition. If he stood for the highest moral purposes--the freedom and equality of all mankind--these lofty ideas failed to mask a thirst for power so deeply ingrained in his character that it drove away many who shared his principles, but mistrusted his motives.
Niven provides a vivid description of Chase's early years--his childhood in New Hampshire (where his father's failed business venture and early death left the family all but destitute) and in Ohio (where he was sent to live with his uncle Philander, an Episcopal bishop), his education at Dartmouth, and his early law career in Cincinnati. Niven shows how the plight of the slaves stirred this reticent young lawyer, and how Chase gradually moved to the forefront of the antislavery movement. At the same time, we see how he used his growing prominence in the antislavery movement to forward his political ambitions. Niven illuminates Chase's long tenure as a public man. Twice elected United States Senator, twice chosen governor of Ohio (then the third most populous state in the Union), Chase organized the widespread but diffuse anti-slavery movement into a workable political organization, the Free Soil party (whose slogan "Free Soil, Free Labor, Freemen" Chase coined himself). We read of Chase's work in Lincoln's war cabinet and his tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and we also follow his many political maneuvers, his attempts to undercut rivals, and his poorly run campaigns for presidential nominations. Niven also provides an intimate portrait of Chase's family life--his loss of three wives and four of his six children, and the unfortunate marriage of his beautiful daughter Kate to a rich but dissolute man--and a vivid picture of life at mid-century.
What emerges is a portrait of a tragic figure, whose high qualities of heart and mind and whose many achievements were ultimately tarnished by an often unseemly quest for power. It is a striking look at an eminent statesman as well as a revealing glimpse into political life in 19th-century America, all set against a background of the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, and the turmoil of Reconstruction.
"John Niven...presents a meticulous study of Chase--the man and the politician. In the process, he throws a laser beam on the inner-workings of the Lincoln presidency and, more broadly, the politics of the age....Salmon P. Chase is a fine biography of a complex man maneuvering through a complex time."--The Times (Trenton)
"One of the Salmon P. Chase paradoxes is the fact that, among Lincoln's contemporaries, he has been relatively neglected because of his very importance. He was engaged in such a wide range of public activities as to intimidate biographers. Now, having mastered the sources, John Niven in the first comprehensive biography re-creates the man in all his complexity, personal as well as political. The book is as readable as it is authoritative."--Richard Nelson
"A brilliant account of the public and personal life of one of the most complex and fascinating major figures of the Civil War era."--Kenneth Stampp, author of America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink
"Niven's smooth but thorough biography reminds us of the importance to history of a long-forgotten player."--Booklist
"In detailing Chase's quest for ever higher office, the author reveals a complex will."--The New Yorker (Recommended Reading)
"A balanced view....A vivid sketch....Niven's scholarship is impeccable. His writing is deft....Aside from its historical value, Niven's work presents a fascinating case study of the relationships between personal ambition and social progress."--Lexington Herald-Ledger