The Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves


Submitted a year ago

With Congress taking a break for August after a series of failed efforts to legislate, we thought the following note especially apropos. Written by Salmon P. Chase in 1873, it says very simply, "Can Congress make wrong right?" Chase famously was the Secretary of the Treasury during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and will be familiar to anyone who has read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. After winning the election of 1860, Lincoln reportedly said, "The very first thing that I settled in my mind was that two great leaders of the [Republican] party should occupy the two first places in my cabinet -- Seward and Chase." At the time, Chase was a newly-minted United States senator from Ohio who had been one of Lincoln's chief competitors at the Republican National Convention.

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Before Chase became Secretary of the Treasury and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he was simply a local boy from Cornish, New Hampshire. The town, now associated with Augustus Saint Gaudens and the Cornish Colony, was originally settled by Chase's grandparents. When Chase was sixteen years old, he enrolled at Dartmouth College as a junior and graduated two years later at the age of eighteen as a member of the class of 1826. Eventually, he would move to Cincinnati and be pejoratively known as the "Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves" because of his fierce anti-slavery views and willing defense of fugitive slaves. He went on to organize the Liberty and Free Soil parties in Ohio and eventually became governor of that state.

Here at Rauner, we have a small collection of correspondence from Chase as well as an alumni file. One of the letters, written to a Judge Smith in August of 1860, several months after Chase's defeat at the convention, states that he holds no ill will for any of the people who voted for Lincoln. Rather, he prefers "the triumph of the cause to the success of any body, whether myself or another." He goes on to say that "the characters and abilities of Mr. Lincoln " provide some measure of hope for the party and its goals. Roughly a year later, he would join Lincoln's team of rivals.

To explore the Salmon P. Chase letters, come to Rauner and ask for MS-103. You can also have a look at his significant alumni file while you're here.

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