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Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary

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Portrait of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, officer of the United States government (Between 1860 and 1865)

With all of the interest in Lincoln and the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I thought this would be an opportune time to write about a member of Lincoln’s cabinet – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Salmon P. Chase was born January 13, 1808, in New Hampshire and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. He became well known locally, and even wrote a treatise on the laws of Ohio that was used for many years.  Chase was an ardent abolitionist and his argument before the Supreme Court in Jones v. Van Zandt caught the attention of those outside of Ohio.

In 1849 he was elected to the Senate, where he championed the abolitionist cause, and later served as governor of Ohio. While serving a second term in the U.S. Senate, he was tapped by Abraham Lincoln to become Secretary of the Treasury.

As Secretary Chase was instrumental in establishing a national banking system after the National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864 were passed.  The 1863 act, originally known as the National Currency Act, (ch. 58, 12 Stat. 665; February 25, 1863) established the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), as well as a national currency. The National Bank Act of 1864 (ch. 106, 13 Stat. 99; June 3, 1864) reaffirmed the status of the OCC and established federal authority over the issuance of national bank charters, leading to a more uniform system for the establishment of banks in the United States.

Cabinet at Washington: Group portrait of Lincoln’s cabinet including (left to right) Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, seated and standing around a table. Illus. in: Harper’s weekly, v. 5, no. 237 (1861 July 13), p. 437.

Chase was also instrumental in creating the new paper money authorized by the National Currency Act. Chase took an active roll in designing this new currency – later called greenbacks. He was also responsible for the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on coins.

The Treasury Department was and is the agency responsible for the monies used to run the government. During Chase’s tenure this job was particularly difficult because much of the government’s revenue and interest were used for the war effort.  Thankfully, he had the help of Jay Cooke in insuring government revenue was available.

Chief Justice Salmon Chase. (between 1860 and 1875). Forms part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Chase’s relationship with the President was not always smooth.  But when Jacob Brinkerhoff,  a Justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, wrote a letter to the President recommending Chase for the job of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – replacing Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (who wrote the Dred Scott decision), Lincoln took Brinkerhoff’s advice and nominated Chase on December 6, 1864.  On the 15th of December Chase took the oath of office and wasted no time.  One of his first acts was to admit John Rock, a man born to free African-American parents, to the bar of the Supreme Court. During his tenure he presided over many oral arguments and wrote the rulings for cases including Texas v. White and Veazie Bank v. Fenno.  He even presided over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

Chase ran unsuccessfully for president in 1868 and 1872 and eventually died in New York on May 7, 1873. He was originally buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but was later re-interred in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

The Library has much to offer those interested in researching Salmon P. Chase. In the catalog there are many books by and about Chase, including his papers.  Online content includes the Lincoln papers, which contain a revealing letter from Cuthbert Bullitt to the President in 1863, as well as the papers of the day that are part of the Chronicling America project.

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