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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Samuel Chase - Freedom Firebrand

Salisbury Times - March 23, 1959

The name of Samuel Chase belongs to the stirring times of the American Revolution and the beginnings of the new nation under the Constitution. The Daughters of the American Revolution, in their local chapter, by using his name honor not only this famous American but themselves. As one writer put it: "His fame survives as a precious legacy of a State prolific in courageous leaders and eminent lawyers." 

Samuel Chase was born in Somerset County, Maryland, on April 17, 1741. He was the only child of the Rev. Thomas Chase, a learned clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church, who emigrated from England, and married Matilda Walker, the daughter of a local farmer. In 1743, shortly after the death of his wife, the Rev. Chase moved to St. Paul's in Baltimore.

As Baltimore at this time was not much more than a village, the opportunities for an education were almost nil. However, Mr. Chase, who had received some of the best advantages which England had to offer, and had become somewhat of a scholar, was well qualified to teach his young son. Under the instruction of the accomplished and scholarly father, young Samuel received a degree of education uncommon for the boys of that period. At the age of 18 the young man was sent to Annapolis to study law. His studies there were marked with the same degree of earnestness which characterized his conduct throughout life.

AFTER BEING admitted to the bar at the age of 20 he chose Annapolis as his home. It was not long before he was known as able, eloquent and fearless, with the reputation among the more conservative inhabitants "of being too little inclined to respect and venerate the dignity of the provincial officers."

Chase married Miss Anne Baldwin in May, 1762, and they had two sons and two daughters. (In March, 1784, he married his second wife, Hannah Kilty Giles.) He and his family lived in Annapolis until 1786, when they moved to Baltimore.

For 20 years, 1764 to 1784, Chase was a member of the Maryland General Assembly. In this legislative body he distinguished himself not only by his vigorous mind but also by his independent action and his spirit of opposition to the royal governor and the court party.

On one occasion he went so far as to support a measure regulating the salaries of the clergy which would cut almost in half that of his own father, because he thought he was supporting the rights of the people.

SAMUEL CHASE was a born leader of insurrection and revolution. At the early age of 24 he openly challenged the right of the English Parliament to tax the Colonies without their consent. In reaction to the Stamp Act, the "Sons of Liberty" of which Chase was most active member, forcibly opened the public offices in Annapolis, seized and destroyed the hated stamps. The stamp distributor or agent was burned in effigy. Chase's activities in these riotous demonstrations caused him to be denounced by the city officials as a "busy, restless incendiary, and ringleader of mobs, a foul-mouthed and inflaming son of discord and faction, a common disturber of the public tranquility, and a promoter of the lawless excesses of the multitude." Chase, in reply, admitted his participation but maintained that the so called mob was composed of "men of reputation and merit" superior to the court official, who had emerged from obscurity and were basking in proprietary sunshine. This was a bold stand for a young man to take against the authorities in the Colony.

THE CALM that seemed to follow the repeal of the Stamp act was only surface-deep and when the various "tea parties" were held in the 1770's, the flames of revolution were once again visible. The Committees of Correspondence were daily adding fuel to the fire. In 1774 when word was received in Maryland that the port of Boston had been closed the indignant colonists were aroused to action. Several of the Maryland counties appointed committees of conference which led to the meeting of a Maryland patriotic convention, which in turn agreed to support a general congress of the various colonies.

Mr. Chase and four other Marylanders were appointed delegates to this first Continental Congress in 1774, for the purpose of "agreeing on a general plan of conduct, operating on the commercial connection of the colonies with the mother country, for the relief of Boston and preservation of American liberty." Chase was very active in the first Congress and was chosen a delegate to represent Maryland at the 2nd Continental Congress which was to meet in the spring of 1775, and from that time until the end of 1778 he was reappointed regularly as the Maryland delegate to Congress.

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CHASE, IN A sense, anticipated in 1775 the Declaration of Independence by declaring in a public speech that he owed no allegiance to the British king. That he was a leader among the great men of Congress, may be judged from the fact that he served on 21 committees in 1777 and on 30 in 1778. In the spring of 1776 he was appointed a member of the Commission to Canada, which included two other very famous Americans, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

When Chase returned from Canada after a fruitless effort to win that Colony to the American cause, he found that Maryland was still reluctant to unite with the other colonies in a definite break from the mother country. Although Chase was a "firebrand" for independence, he was honor bound to follow the instructions of his beloved state. A great role was played by Chase in returning to Maryland where he worked tirelessly to swing the opinions of the citizens and the state Convention in support of independence.

BEFORE LEAVING Philadelphia for Maryland, Chase had practically promised John Adams that he would deliver the Maryland vote for independence and by his efforts more than any other man's, Maryland voted for a Declaration of Independence. On July 5, 1776, the day after the vote for independence, Chase wrote to John Adams: "I hope ere this time the decisive blow is struck. Oppression, Inhumanity and Perfidy have compelled Us to it. Blessed be Men who effect the Work, I envy you! How shall I transmit to posterity that I gave my assent?"

Samuel Chase was not to be denied the honor he had so well earned, for on Aug. 2, 1776, he, William Paca, Thomas Stone and Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the Declaration of Independence for Maryland. Although some may believe that his great career and duty to country had reached the peak, in reality they had just begun.

After the Declaration of Independence had been signed, urgent as were the demands of his professional duties and private interests, Samuel Chase did not hesitate to hurry to the Halls of Congress if he heard of any question being in danger of a wrong decision or if any measure required his support

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On one occasion he had gone back to Annapolis to attend to some business, but returned quickly to Philadelphia on hearing that the plan for a confederation and a foreign alliance with France might meet with opposition and delay. During this period he served on a special committee with Richard Henry Lee and Gouverneur Morris to write a paper to discredit the British peace overtures of 1778, which would have rescinded American independence. It has been stated that the final document was largely the handiwork of Chase.

During the early years of the American Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington had to fight not only the British armies but the intrigues aimed at removing him as commanding chief. Throughout all of this, Chase staunchly supported the general, a fact which Washington was later to remember.

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IN 1778, HOWEVER, Chases's reputation was suddenly shadowed. Chase, the great champion of American liberty, and a long-time fighter for the rights of the people, slipped very much out of character. Very little is known of the affair, but it seems evident that by utilizing information gained as a member of Congress, Chase joined with others in an attempt to corner the flour market in view of the approach of the French naval fleet.

Referring to this affair in a New York newspaper, Alexander Hamilton had this to say of Chase: "It is your lot to have the peculiar privilege of being universally despised ...Were I inclined to make a satire upon the species I would attempt a faithful description of your heart." For the next two years Chase was left off the Maryland delegation to Congress; and though he was later reappointed he rarely attended and played only a minor role.

Chase was appointed by the State of Maryland to go to England in 1783, in an attempt to recover some bank stock which belonged to the former colony. Chase achieved very little success in this matter for the issue was tied up in court proceedings. It was not until some years later that the problem was settled by Chase's one-time protégé, William Pinkney, who became among other things the Attorney General of the United States, American Minister to Naples and St. Petersburg.

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HOWEVER, WHILE in England Chase met the famous Englishmen, Fox, Pitt and Burke, and probably just as important, married his second wife, Hannah Giles.

Chase was still practicing law but entered also into the field of trade and commerce. For the most part, these economic ventures in shipping and the buying of coal and iron and put him deep in debt. His knowledge of trade, nevertheless, was great enough to enable him to attend a trade conference at Mount Vernon in 1785, and to help write the compact between Maryland and Virginia regarding the navigation of the Potomac.

In 1786 Chase moved to Baltimore where in 1788 he became chief judge of the criminal court and in 1791 also assumed the post of chief judge of the general court of Maryland. While serving on the bench of this court, Chase showed as a judge the audacity which was characteristic of his career. His boldness and fearlessness were displayed in 1794 when he ordered the arrest of two popular leaders of a riot. The two men refused to give bail and the sheriff, fearing a rescue would be attempted, hesitated to take them to jail. "Call the possee commitatus," said Judge Chase, stepping down from the bench, said, "Summon me, then. I will take them to jail." Although warned that his life and property would be endangered, Chase personally escorted the two rioters to the jail.

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A FEW YEARS after this event, Chase was charged by the grand jury with holding a position in two courts at the same time. Calling the jurymen before him, he "severely arraigned them, ordering that they confine their activities to their proper sphere." Yet the holding of these two offices, chief judge of the criminal court and also of the general court, resulted in an attempt by the Maryland General Assembly to remove him from office. The move failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote, but a majority of the members declared that the spirit of the state constitution had been violated. This tumultuous episode is another example of the fate that seemed to follow Chase's path as a judge, both state and national.

Although Chase had been one of the great leaders in our movement for independence, he is not to be listed among the friends for the adoption of the new Federal Constitution. Writing over the signature "Caution", Chase expressed his opposition, and he recorded as one of the 11 members of the Maryland ratifying convention who voted against the adoption. Strange as it may seem to the average person, Chase was a member of a committee which proposed amendments calling for trial by jury and freedom of the press; later in his career he was to be considered a dangerous enemy to both of these beliefs.

But the day was not far away when Chase, along with that other Marylander, Luther Martin, would be classified as one of the strongest of federalists both in words and deeds. Jut why Chase turned Federalist has been somewhat of a mystery. He was a state's righter in opposition to the constitution, and even after the document had been put into operation he continued to be recognized as the leader of that force in Maryland.

Be that as it may, in a letter of 1796 from President Washington's very close friend, James McHenry, Chase was suggested for appointment to federal office. Washington was at first considering Chase for the post of attorney-general; but on Jan. 26, 1796, he nominated him to the United States Supreme Court. The very next day the Senate approved unanimously, and in February of that year Chase took his seat.

SINCE THERE is not space to take up the merits of the cases which Judge Chase helped to rule on during the first few years of service, mention should be made of the fact that men writing about Chase do not agree as to his role. One says "The first few years of service on that court were uneventful. Only one of his decisions of this period was noteworthy."

Another scholar wrote this: "Chase's performance on the Supreme Bench was the most notably of any previous to Marshall ... Chase was required to several terms of court to give his opinions first. This accident of position, together with the colorful quality of his judicial utterances, their positiveness of expression, their richness in 'political science,' have all contributed to give his opinions predominant importance in this period."

Chase served on the Supreme Court for 15 years, but most of that time he was overshadowed by the more famous John Marshall, who came to the court in 1801.

Unfortunately, Judge Chase is almost always associated with and remembered for the treason trial of John Fries, and his own impeachment trial. In the year 1800, while holding circuit court at Philadelphia, Judge Chase presided over the case of John Fries, who had been charged with treason in raising an insurrection against the Federal Government. This was the period of the Alien-Sedition acts when American democracy was not functioning properly and there was a major struggle between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Adams-Federalists.

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CHASE HAD ALWAYS been champion of the people's right; and although he was often stern and severe he had never been known to be cruel nor oppressive. Yet in the case of John Fries there are grounds for saying that Chase did not grant the defendant a fair trial. Fries was sentenced to be executed and only by a pardon from President Adams was justice gained.

This case and the one concerning Callender for sedition in Virginia were partly responsible for the impeachment of Chase in 1804-1805. The immediate occasion for the impeachment was Chase's intemperate charge to the Baltimore grand jury in May, 1803, when he severely arraigned the administration of President Jefferson.

President Jefferson wasted little time in suggesting to the House of Representatives that impeachment proceedings be undertaken against Chase. The house complied in March, 1804, by a vote of 73 to 32. It was believed by many then (and is till thought to be true by many today) that although Jefferson wanted to be rid of Chase, he was to be just a stepping stone to the removal of a much more dangerous enemy to Jeffersonianism, the Chief Justice John Marshall. If Chase could be removed then the Jeffersonians were planning to try the same tactics to remove Marshall.

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