Walter Stahr turned to writing books after a career of more than two decades as a lawyer. His first was “John Jay: Founding Father” in 2005. He has earned praise and awards for biographies of William Henry Seward and Edwin Stanton. His latest, about the antislavery activist, treasury secretary and chief justice Salmon P. Chase, will be published this month. Here, he discusses his research at the Library.
How did you get started writing biographies?
I was always a reader. One day in Hong Kong, while reading an American history book, I said to myself that even I could do better. And then it seemed as if another voice said to me, “Stahr, if you think that, do it; write a book.” I started thinking about topics and settled on John Jay, sort of a forgotten Founding Father.
How do you select subjects?
I look for important Americans who have been, if not overlooked, at least not fully considered in recent books. In the case of Seward, for example, nobody had appreciated that his wife was a close friend of those who organized the Seneca Falls Convention — the start of the women’s movement in America. In the case of Chase, nobody had noticed an early essay in which he declared that antislavery political pressure would end slavery in America.
Why did you decide to delve into Chase’s story?
When my editor, the late Alice Mayhew, suggested that I should write about Chase, I was not initially enthused. Like many Abraham Lincoln buffs, I viewed Chase as ambitious and arrogant. But after a little reading, I decided that Chase deserved a new biography. I did so because we would not have had Lincoln without the work that Chase did in the two decades before the Civil War, creating and building antislavery political parties. While Lincoln was still a loyal Whig, almost silent on the subject of slavery, Chase was speaking out against slavery and in favor of Black rights and building up antislavery political parties, culminating in the Republican Party.
Chase helped Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign of 1858 and in the presidential campaign of 1860. And Lincoln relied heavily on Chase as his treasury secretary during the Civil War, not just in financial but also in political and even military matters. Chase resigned in summer 1864, but soon thereafter he was out on the campaign trail, urging men to vote for Lincoln. At the end of the year, Lincoln named Chase as our next chief justice, the role he filled until his death in 1873.
Which books have you researched at the Library?
I have researched all of my books at the Library. Indeed, as a young Washington lawyer, I spent hours in the Library. In those days, we relied on books, and many books were available only in the Law Library Reading Room. I have used so many different reading rooms over the years: the Main Reading Room (the most inspiring room in America); the Law Library Reading Room; the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room; and, above all, the Manuscript Reading Room.
For the Chase book, the online version of the Chase papers was essential. I now live in Southern California, so it would have been hard to review all that material in person. Indeed, it would have been impossible, for I was midway through the Chase book when the Library closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, as I was writing and revising in 2020 and early 2021, I was using the online version of the Chase papers.
Do you have any advice for other researchers on navigating the Library’s collections?
I urge researchers to enlist the Library’s staff members. I always mention my subject, and staff members often respond with something like, “Have you looked at this?” Jeff Flannery, the former head of the Manuscript Reading Room, pointed me to the records of books checked out of the Library during the Civil War. These enabled me to determine that Seward consulted some international law books, but not as many as his friend Charles Sumner, who seemed to be the most bookish member of Congress.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a proposal about a man whose manuscript collection is (I fear) the largest presidential collection at the Library.
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