Salmon Chase: Whodat?

In the last of the five stories that make up his third volume of stories about fictional alter ego Henry Bech, John Updike recounts the incredulous response to Bech’s receipt of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature. In Updike’s telling, the New York Daily News runs a story with the headline “BECH? WHODAT???”

That doesn’t quite apply to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, but we should know him better than we do. An 1869 Chase opinion figured prominently in the oral argument of Trump v. Anderson yesterday. The opinion isn’t binding precedent — Chase wrote it while sitting as a Circuit justice — but its temporal proximity to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and its inherent persuasive power were both acknowledged in the course of the argument.

Okay, who is Salmon Chase? Walter Stahr wrote the go-to biography Salmon Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival. Randy Barnett’s moving Claremont Review of Books review brought the book to my attention when it was published in 2022. The review opens:

Most Americans have never heard of Salmon P. Chase. Of those who have, many know him for just one thing: he was an ambitious politician who wanted to be president. Those who have read journalist Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005) have also been told that Chase was a thorn in the side of Abraham Lincoln. But for many, Chase is just a name—Chief Justice John Roberts once told me the only thing he knew about him was that during Chase’s tenure as Chief Justice (1864-73), Congress changed his title from “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court” to “Chief Justice of the United States.” Today, millions of people use a credit card issued by JPMorgan Chase, without realizing that the bank was posthumously named in honor of Salmon Chase, who had served as secretary of the Treasury.

But Salmon Chase ought to be far better remembered: he was an American icon, statesman, and hero. His story is quite simply the story of slavery’s demise in America. Chase’s previous biographers failed to chronicle comprehensively his tireless efforts on behalf of the abolitionist cause. Now, at long last, Chase has the biography he deserves in Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, by celebrated historian and legal scholar Walter Stahr, whose previous books include Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary (2017) and Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (2012).

In case you want to elevate your mind above the dispiriting news of the day, Barnett’s review — “An indispensable abolitionist” — is one good place to look.

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