Sunday, January 13, 2013

Happy Birthday, Salmon

10,000 dollar bill
Salmon P Chase was born today in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1808. He used to be best known - in fact, only known - to me as the odd man out in American currency: Hamilton and Franklin were Founding Fathers, if not presidents, but who was this Salmon P Chase and why did he rate the $10,000 dollar bill?

Well, he was Senator from Ohio and Governor of Ohio; Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln; and Chief Justice of the United States. He was an Abolitionist, and he coined the slogan of the Free Soil Party, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men." The whole of his political life was dedicated to destroying slavery and its threat to the America's republican government.

Not bad.

Chase was first a Whig, then a member of the Liberty Party, then a founding member of the Free Soil Party (ah, yes; the US's multi-party days). And he founded the modern Republican Party - oh, how things have changed! - by uniting Whigs and liberal Democrats within a party dedicated to fighting slavery. He ran for President but ended up supporting Lincoln, and while Treasury Secretary he established the modern banking system - including the first federal treasury notes, which is why he's on the money.

In 1868 he wrote in a private letter:
"Congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens and all unable to take its prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of despotic military governments for the States and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions; no classes excluded from suffrage; and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and of sincere attachment to the constitutional Government of the United States."
He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Lincoln, as Chief Justice, and one of his first acts was to appoint John Rock, the first black attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

Chase dearly wished to be president, but his unflinching support for equality for black Americans meant he couldn't find a party which would back him. He even founded the Liberal Republican Party to combat Grant and the Radical Republicans, and although that party didn't last much beyond the election of 1872, most of its leaders didn't return to the Republicans but instead became Democrats, beginning the swap of positions that finds the "party of Lincoln" where it is today.

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