Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


11.2 What’s in a Name? Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase

 

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was named after a fish.

Well, I don’t know that for sure.  Maybe “Salmon” is a family name.  Or maybe the Chase clan had a little Irish in them, and were familiar with the Celtic legend of the “salmon of wisdom” and decided to make one of their young sons its namesake.  Or maybe they were inspired by the story of Sacagawea, and named the wee baby Chase after her birthplace, Salmon, Idaho.  Or maybe they just loved their Omega 3s.

There is also the outside possibility that they considered “Salmon” in its definition as the Anglo-Saxon derivation of “son of Solomon,” and being a religious family, named him accordingly.  After all, King Solomon was rich, married and/or bedded lots of Biblical era chicks, and had some of the most interesting verses in the Bible dedicated to him–the Song of Songs.  (Been to a Catholic wedding in the U.S. in the past few years?  Ever heard a reading that includes  “my love is like a gazelle or a young stag…”–the one that isn’t 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind”?  Yup, that’s the Song of Songs.)

Believe it or not, any of the above could be true, because Salmon Chase was born in New Hampshire, and you never know what folks from New Hampshire are capable of.  All of that “live free or die” craziness.  (That’s why Massachusetts folks flock there to do their tax-free shopping on the weekends, and then high-tail it home afterwards to wrap themselves in the comfort of a regular income tax.)  And there were other precedents of wacky naming practices in the Chase family; for instance, the uncle who helped to raise young Salmon, an Episcopal bishop, was named Philander Chase.  Philander.  He was a bishop.  The Chase women must have had a pretty interesting sense of humor.)

But what’s in a name, right?  (After all, we just elected a man with one of the most ethnically unusual names in modern political history.)

Chase, like Secretary of State William Seward, was also much more qualified for the office of President than Lincoln.  He had served as U.S. Senator from Ohio for a term from 1849-1855 before assuming the governorship of Ohio from 1856-1860; at which time he sought the Republican Party’s nomination for President.  By then, Chase had developed quite a name for himself not only as a voice against slavery, but also as an abolitionist.  He was even more famous than Seward for his defense of fugitive slaves; in fact, he took one of his cases all the way to the Supreme Court, in the famous Jones v. Van Zandt.  (The case involved a Kentucky slaveowner–Jones–who sued abolitionist/Underground Railroad conductor Van Zandt for monetary damages after Van Zandt was caught helping several of Jones’s slaves escape.  Chase represented the abolitionist, and lost in a unanimous 9-0 decision.)

 

Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill

Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill, discontinued since 1945

As Secretary of the Treasury, Chase wielded a fair amount of power during the Civil War era.  He oversaw the war coffers, which were incredibly stretched during that time, leading him to create government bonds to finance it.  He also instituted the national banking system, as well as introduced the first national paper currency to the U.S. (prior to this, paper currency was non-standard and issued by individual states.)  Not surprisingly, the ever-ambitious Chase, who also had to design the paper currency once it was created, put his own image on the notes.  (Maybe they should have called him humility.)  Constantly attempting to gain leverage over Lincoln, Chase threatened to/attempted to resign from his Cabinet post 3 times; on each occasion Lincoln, in an effort to appease Chase, asked him to stay so there might be stability in government leadership during wartime.

In 1865, Chase’s 4th resignation was accepted by Lincoln.  (Which apparently took Chase by surprise.)  In order to appease high-ranked Chase supporters in the Republican party (as well as, perhaps, to keep Chase from challenging him for reelection), Lincoln nominated Chase for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1864.  He held the post from 1864 until his death in 1873; ever convinced of his own readiness for high political office, however, Chase did pursue the potential for a Democratic nomination for President in 1868, but it didn’t come to fruition.  As Chief Justice, he presided over Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings, and appointed the first African-American lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Although Chase has largely been forgotten in modern America, his legacy lives on in a few interesting ways.  First, although it has no relation to the man himself, Chase Manhattan Bank was named for him.  Also, his was the first and only image to appear on the $10,000 bill, the last of which was printed in 1945.  (Making him one of the elite club of non-Presidents to grace the face of U.S. paper money–others include Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.)

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