Samuel Chase - (1741 - 1811)

Samuel Chase Signature

Samuel Chase Biography

Samuel Chase was the son of the Rev. Thomas Chase, a clergyman of distinction, in the protestant Episcopal church, who, after his emigration to America, married the daughter of a respectable farmer, and settled, for a time, in Somerset county, in Maryland, where this son was born, on the 17th of April, 1741.

In 1743, Mr. Chase removed to Baltimore, having been appointed to the charge of St. Paul's church, in that place. Even in Baltimore, at this period, there was no school of a high order. The instruction of his son, therefore, devolved upon Mr. Chase, than whom few, fortunately, were better qualified for such a charge. His own attainments in classical learning were much superior to those who had been educated in America. Under the instruction of one so well qualified to teach, the son soon outstripped most of his compeers, and at the early age of eighteen was sent to Annapolis, to commence the study of law. After a sedulous attention to his preparatory course, for two years, he was admitted to practice in the mayor's court, and two years from this latter date, was licensed for the chancery, and some of the county courts. Finding the number of practitioners at Annapolis small, he settled in that place as a lawyer, where he was soon after connected in marriage with an amiable and intelligent lady, by whom he had two sons and two daughters, all of whom survived their parents.

The incidents in the life of Mr. Chase, for several years, were but few. Devoted to his professional duties, he not only acquired a respectable share of business, but became highly distinguished for his legal attainments.

The political career of Mr. Chase commenced about the, time of the congress of 1774, in which body he acted as a delegate from Maryland. This station he continued to occupy for several years. In the spring of 1776, he was appointed by congress, in conjunction with Dr. Franklin and Mr. Carroll, to a trust of a most important nature. This was a mission to Canada, the object of which was, to induce the inhabitants of that country to withdraw their connection from Great Britain, and to join the American confederacy. The undertaking was attended with great difficulties; but as Mr. Chase, though young, was distinguished for his abilities, and characterized for a most ardent patriotism, he was appointed one of the commissioners. Mr. Carroll, and his brother, afterwards the archbishop of Baltimore, were added to the commission, under an apprehension that they might exercise a salutary influence with the Catholics in Canada. Although the objects of the expedition were not attained, the fidelity of the commissioners was never, for a moment, questioned.

On his return to Philadelphia, Mr. Chase found that a proposition had been made in congress to issue a declaration of independence. The situation of the Maryland delegation, in respect to such a measure, was peculiarly trying. They had been expressly prohibited, by the convention which appointed them, from voting in favor of a declaration of independence; and, as they had accepted their appointments under this restriction, they did not feel at liberty to give such a measure their active and open support.

It was not compatible with the independent and patriotic spirit of Mr. Chase, quietly to endure such a situation. He left congress, and proceeded to Maryland. He traversed the province, and assisted by his colleagues and friends, assembled county meetings, and persuaded the inhabitants to send addresses to the convention, then sitting at Annapolis, in favor of independence. Such an expression of cordiality to a measure, the convention could not resist, and at length gave an unanimous vote in its favor. With this vote, Mr. Chase hastened to Philadelphia, where he arrived in time to take his seat on Monday morning, having rode, on the two previous days, one hundred and fifty miles, On the day of his arrival, tile resolution to issue a declaration of independence came before the house, and he had the pleasure of uniting with a majority in favor of it.

This success was a sufficient reward for all the labor which he had sustained, in accomplishing an object so desirable. A pure patriotism only. however, could have sustained the fathers of the revolution, under all the toils and fatigue which they endured. They were fitted for high and mighty enterprises. Common dangers, and common suffer-lugs, they regarded not. The object presented to their view, was connected with the liberty not only of themselves, but with the millions of their future posterity. With this object before them, therefore, they heeded not danger, nor were they subdued, or even disheartened, by the most unexpected reverses.

Our limits permit us not to enter into a minute detail of the congressional services rendered by Mr. Chase, during several years which followed the declaration of independence. In the number, variety, and importance of those services, he was probably surpassed by few. He possessed, beyond most others, an ardor of mind, which sometimes, in debate, carried him almost beyond the bounds of propriety. There were some others from time to time in congress of a similar stamp. They were important members; they served to animate that body by the warmth which they manifested in debate, and to rouse the more supine or timid to action, as the necessity of the times required.

In 1783 Mr. Chase being accidentally in Baltimore, was invited to attend the meeting of a club of young men, who assembled at stated times, for the purpose of debating. Among the speakers of the evening, there was one who, from his force of argument, and gracefulness of delivery, attracted his attention. At the close of the debate, Mr. Chase entered into conversation with him, and advised him to think of the profession of law. The young man was at the time a clerk in an apothecary's shop. Finding him destitute of the means necessary for an undertaking so expensive, Mr. Chase kindly offered him the benefit of his library, his instruction, and his table. That young man was William Pinkney. He accepted the invitation of his generous benefactor, who afterwards had the pleasure of seeing him one of the most distinguished lawyers ever at the American bar. It may be proper to add in this place, that he was afterwards attorney general of the United States, and a minister in successive years at the courts of St. James, at Naples, and St. Petersburg. In the same year, Mr. Chase visited England, on behalf of the state of Maryland, for the purpose of reclaiming a large amount of property, which, while a colony, she had entrusted to the bank of England. In the prosecution of this business, he continued in England about a year, in which time he had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with many of the distinguished men of that country, among whom were Pitt, and Fox, and Burke. Although unsuccessful in accomplishing the object of his mission, while he continued in England, he put the claim in so favorable a train, that at a subsequent period, the state recovered about six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. While in England, he was married to his second wife, the daughter of Dr. Samuel Giles, of Kentbury, with whom, in 1784, he returned to America.

In the year 1786, at the pressing invitation of his friend, Colonel Howard, he removed from Annapolis to Baltimore. By this gentleman, he was generously presented with a square of ten lots of land, upon a spot in which he erected a house, in which he lived until his death. On his removal from Annapolis, the corporation of that city tendered to him the expressions of their respect, in the following address:

"Sir, the mayor, aldermen, and common councilmen of the city of Annapolis, impressed with a due sense of the services rendered to this corporation by you, in the capacity of recorder thereof, do take this occasion to assure you of their entire approbation of your conduct in the performance of the duties of that trust, and to acknowledge your ready exertion, at all times, to promote the interest and welfare of this city, They sincerely regret the occasion of this address, as your removal from the city of Annapolis will deprive this body of a faithful and able officer, and the city of a valuable citizen. You have our warmest wishes for your happiness and welfare."

To this address, Mr. Chase returned the following answer:

"The address of the mayor, aldermen, and common councilmen of this city, presented me this day, affords me just pleasure, as I flatter myself they speak the genuine sentiments of the citizens. As recorder of the city, duty and inclination urged me to enforce due obedience to the bylaws, and assist in the framing of ordinances for the regulating the police of the city. In the discharge of this duty, I ever received the ready assistance of my brethren on the bench, and of the other members of the corporation, and but a small portion of merit is due to me. My abilities have been much overrated by the corporation; I only wish they had been equal to my inclination to serve them.

"As one of the delegates of Annapolis, my public powers were exerted on all occasions to promote the interest and welfare of the city; and supported by my colleagues, my endeavors were in some instances crowned with success. I feel myself amply rewarded by the approbation of the body over whom you have the honor to preside. There can be nothing more agreeable to a public character, than to receive the public approbation of his conduct, from those who speak the collected and unbiased sense of his constituents; and it is the only reward a free and virtuous people can bestow, and the only one an honest representative can expect.

"Be pleased to present the corporation my warmest wishes for their prosperity, and I sincerely hope that the city of Annapolis may be forever distinguished for the harmony and friendship, the benevolence and patriotism of its citizens."

In the year 1788, Mr. Chase was appointed the presiding judge of a court of criminal jurisdiction, for the county and town of Baltimore, at that time organized. This situation, however, did not prevent him from the practice of his profession, in which he continued until the year 1791, when he accepted the appointment of chief justice of the general court of Maryland. In a previous year, Mr. Chase had served in the convention of Maryland, assembled to ratify the federal constitution on the part of Maryland. With this instrument he was not entirely pleased, considering it not sufficiently democratic. He is said to have belonged to the Federal party in the country, and so to have continued to the end of his life; but not to have entertained that partiality for England which has been ascribed to that party. With this peculiarity of views and feelings, Mr. Chase was not, as might be expected, without his enemies.

In the year 1794, an event occurred in the city of Baltimore, which gave an opportunity to Judge Chase of exhibiting the firmness of his character, in respect to maintaining the dignity of the bench and the supremacy of the law. The event to which we allude was the tarring and feathering of two men, in the public streets, on an occasion of some popular excitement. The circumstances of the case were investigated by Judge Chase, in the issue of which investigation, he caused two respectable and popular men to be arrested as ringleaders.

On being arraigned before the court, they refused to give bail. Upon this the judge informed them that they must go to jail. Accordingly, he directed the sheriff to take one of the prisoners to jail. This the sheriff informed the judge he could not do, as he apprehended resistance. "Summon the posse comitatus then," exclaimed the judge. "Sir," said the sheriff; "no one will serve." "Summon me then," said Judge Chase, in a tone of lofty indignation, "I will be the posse comitatus, and I will take him to jail."

A member of the bar now begged leave to interpose, and requested the judge to waive the commitment. "No, God forbid," replied the judge, "I will do my duty, whatever be the consequences to myself or my family." He now directed the parties to meet him the next day, and to give him the required security. He was told that the next day would be the Sabbath. "No better day," said Judge Chase, "can be named, on which to execute the laws of the country. I will meet you here, and from this seat of justice I will go to the house of God."

The parties in question, however, neglected to give the required security, on the Sabbath, on account of which neglect, the judge dispatched an express to the governor and council, calling upon them for assistance in the execution of the laws. On Monday the required security was given; but when the grand jury met, instead of finding a bill against the accused, they delivered a presentment against Judge Chase himself; in which they reflected with severity upon his censure of the sheriff; and charged him with having violated the bill of rights, by holding at the same time two incompatible offices, viz. the office of chief justice of the criminal court, and that of the general court of the state. To this presentment Judge Chase replied with becoming moderation, and yet with firmness. In conclusion, he informed the jury that they had touched upon topics beyond their province; he advised them to confine themselves to the line of their duty, assuring them that whatever opinions they might form, or whatever resentments they might indulge, he should ever respect them as the grand inquest of the state of Maryland.

In the year 1796, he was appointed by Washington an associate judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, a station which he continued to occupy for fifteen years, and in which he generally appeared with great dignity and ability. It was the ill fortune of Judge Chase, however, to have his latter days on the bench embittered by an impeachment by the house of representatives, on which he was tried before the Senate of the United States, where he narrowly escaped condemnation. This impeachment was made in 1804, and was recommended by a committee of inquiry, raised, it is said, on the motion of John Randolph, of Virginia, to which he was incited through political animosity. The articles of impeachment originally reported were six in number, to which two others were afterwards added. On these articles Judge Chase was put upon his trial, which began on the second of January, and was finally ended on the fifth of March, 1805.

The articles of impeachment were founded on certain conduct of the judge, on different occasions, at Philadelphia, Richmond, and other places, in which he was said to have transcended his judicial powers. The minute history of this affair, our limits forbid us to detail. It is sufficient to say, that much exertion was made by his political opponents to produce a conviction, but without effect. On five of the charges a majority of the senate acquitted him. On the others, a majority was against him: but as a vote of two thirds is necessary to conviction, he was acquitted of the whole.

This was a severe trial to a man of the independent spirit of Judge Chase. Its disagreeableness was not a little increased by a severe attack of the gout, during the progress of the impeachment. After his acquittal, he continued to exercise his judicial functions, unmolested by his enemies, and with his usual ability.

In the year 1811, his health began to fail him, and though his disease was slow in its progress, he well understood, that it was of a nature to bring him to the grave. His death occurred on the nineteenth of June. In his dying hour, he appeared calm and resigned. He spoke of his domestic affairs with great propriety, and to his weeping family recommended composure and fortitude. He was a firm believer in Christianity, and but a short time before his death, having partaken of the sacrament, he declared himself to be in peace with all mankind. In his will, he directed that no mourning should be worn for him, and requested that only his name, with the dates of his birth and death, should be inscribed on his tomb.

From the foregoing sketch, it is easy to perceive that Judge Chase was no ordinary man. He possessed an intellect of great power, and a courage which was at all times undaunted. It was his unhappiness to have feelings which were too irascible and vehement for his personal comfort, and which betrayed him at times, into a course of conduct, that sober judgment would have pronounced at least impolitic. Yet few men were more sincere or more firmly patriotic. He ardently loved his friends, and by them, was ardently loved in turn. He loved his country. In the days of her deepest depression, he stood firm to her interests, and will occupy a distinguished place among those who have "graced the rolls of fame."

SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich