5 Things You Didn't Know About Salmon Chase

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Salmon P. Chase may not be history's most familiar name, but the former Senator who also served as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court made quite a mark on American politics. Here are five things you may not know about Chase:

1. He's Probably In Your Wallet

If you're lucky enough to have a $10,000 bill tucked away in your hip pocket, you've seen Chase's face. His portrait appears on the obverse of the giant bill. When the Treasury started issuing the bills in 1928, it chose to honor Chase for his crucial role in helping to popularize modern banknotes.

Of course, Chase's role in the introduction of these banknotes wasn't entirely altruistic. As Secretary of the Treasury, Chase was in charge of introducing and popularizing the first issue of greenback bank notes in 1861. Chase was politically ambitious, so he chose to festoon the $1 bill with an image of a great American hero—Salmon P. Chase. Whatever his motivations, though, Chase did manage to get Americans to make the switch to paper money.

Chase's name might appear in another place in your wallet. Although he didn't found the institution himself, Chase National Bank was named in his honor. Over the years the bank has morphed into JPMorganChase, so Chase's name might be printed on one of your credit cards.

2. He Had an Ear for Slogans

Ever wonder how "In God We Trust" ended up on our currency? Give Chase the credit. People naturally became a bit more conscious of religion during the Civil War, and by the end of 1861 they were inundating Secretary of the Treasury Chase to put some sort of acknowledgment of God on American currency.

Chase apparently felt adding a religious note to our cash was a good call, so he instructed the director of the Philadelphia Mint to come up with "a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition." The Mint's staff suggested "Our Country, Our God" or "God, Our Trust."

Chase liked these ideas, but he changed one of them to "In God We Trust." Congress approved the change in 1864, and "In God We Trust" has appeared intermittently on coins ever since.

3. He Had a Tragic Personal Life

A contemporary biographer of Chase described him as "habitually grave and reserved in demeanor; he did not often laugh, and had but a small appreciation of humor." Chase had a good excuse for not being a barrel of laughs, though; his personal life was marked by one flurry of tragedies after another.

Chase's first wife died just two years into their marriage, and the couple's daughter died before she turned five. Chase remarried in 1839, but with similarly grim results. His wife and two of his three daughters soon died. He took a third bride in 1846, but she died just six years later, as did one of their two daughters.

4. He Really, Really Wanted to Be President

Chase was never nominated to a presidential ticket, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Chase angled for a nomination for every election between 1856 and 1872, and he wasn't afraid to jump from party to party in his efforts to nab the top spot on a ticket.

In fact, Chase made a career of jumping from party to party. He was elected to Cincinnati's city council as a Whig in 1840, but he soon jumped ship for the Liberty Party. The Liberty Party eventually morphed into the Free Soil Party; the slogan-minded Chase actually coined the rallying cry, "Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men."

While serving in the Senate from 1849 to 1855, Chase identified as a Democrat, but his anti-slavery stance led him to become one of the first Republicans. As a last-ditch effort to get a presidential nomination, Chase even helped form the Liberal Republican Party to oppose the reelection of Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, but the party nominated Horace Greeley instead.

5. He Didn't Love Being on the Supreme Court

Most politicians would jump at the chance to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Not Chase, though. Although the aspiring presidential candidate had served under Lincoln as Secretary of the Treasury, he still lusted after a spot in the White House for himself.

Thanks to his presidential ambitions, Chase would often threaten to resign from the Treasury post in order to make a run for the office. Lincoln declined to accept three of Chase's resignations, but the fourth try was the charm for Chase in 1864. Shortly after Chase's resignation, though, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died. Lincoln nominated Chase for the opening, and on December 6, 1864, Chase became the sixth Chief Justice of the United States.

Chase wasn't a natural fit for the position, as evidenced by his aforementioned continued political campaigning. Although he made some progressive moves from the bench—he appointed John Rock as the first African-American to argue a case before the court—he didn't love the work. Chase held the position until his death in 1873, but he summed up his time on the bench thusly: "Working from morning till midnight and no result, except that John Smith owned this parcel or land or other property instead of Jacob Robinson; I caring nothing and nobody caring much more, about the matter."

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears on Friday. If there's someone you'd like to see profiled, leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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May 21, 2010 - 9:45am
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