February 15, 2013

The Selfishness of Salmon Chase

Following on from seeing Lincoln on Saturday, I'm currently in the midst of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals- her account of the Lincoln administration. I remember it really as the book everyone talked about when Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton in 2008: apparantly Obama had read and reread it before he made that decision,. Whether that's true or not, the idea of writing a book which concentrates on the relationships between leading politicians rather than focussing on the heroic figure of Lincoln (or say in a British context Churchill) is interesting. That noone has done this for the 1940 cabinet is fascinating.

I'll write a bit more on that once I've finished the book though. Today I want to think about something else. Goodwin begins her book by taking us through the histories of the men who ran against each other for the Republican nomination for President in 1860: Abraham Lincoln, William H Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio and Edward Bates of Missouri. They are all fascinating characters but Chase is the one I'm going to write about tonight because one of the things that earned him his reputation was a case which I think offers a fascinating insight into his personality.

The case is that of a farmer called Van Zandt. I'm relying entirely on Goodwin here for her summary: basically Van Zandt picked up some slaves on an April night in 1841 and promised to help them escape to freedom. 2 slave catchers acosted him on the route and found the slaves and the owner of the slaves brought a suit against Van Zandt for harboring and concealing the slaves- essentially helping to 'steal' their property. The key thing about the case, which Salmon Chase took up in the Ohio courts and then Chase and Seward prosecuted in the Supreme Court, was that if he lost Van Zandt would be ruined.

What Chase did was bring a case which would almost certainly lose. As Goodwin argues it, he argued before the courts that slavery was unjust, unconstitutional and could not therefore be maintained in law. Think about what that argument is. Its an argument on principle. As soon as Chase made it, three things instantly followed from it. Firstly Chase acquired a reputation as a stalwart opponent of slavery who could make a principled argument against it- hence he obtained an appeal to others who shared his values. Secondly making that principled argument meant that the cause of American anti-slavery was pushed along- was articulated even to the highest cause in the land. Thirdly it meant that Van Zandt would lose his case- no court would strike down slavery as property on a case such as his- especially when that court as the Supreme Court had, had a southern majority.

Van Zandt was completely ruined- he lost his land, property, children and life. Chase went on to serve in the US Senate, in the governorship of Ohio, in the cabinet of Lincoln and on the Supreme Court. Slavery was abolished. I'm not saying that Chase was entirely selfish, Goodwin suggests that his ambition was married to his belief and that sounds right. What I'm trying to get at and what I think is interesting here is that Chase's strong belief, allied to his ambition, rendered him blind to the interests of the individual whose case he was defending. I'm not sure what I think of this as an individual act of morality but I think its revealing of the priorities of the man- who probably could think more about the abstract needs of the slaves than the concrete difficulties of the man in front of him.


edmund said...

I'm wary of Goodwin on this kind of thing . My impression is that actually CHase was tryipong a reasonable argument- his argumetn boiled down to only the states can create slavery-not that slavery should be banned everywhere. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Wyxj7Y3Fh7AC&pg=PA37&dq=Van+Zandt.chase+salmon+Chase&hl=en&sa=X&ei=VbY4UbSRN4PbPZ7UgegJ&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Van%20Zandt.chase%20salmon%20Chase&f=false