In his work E Pluribus Unum, the historian Forrest McDonald provides a succinct profile of Samuel Chase: “But for Samuel Chase, Maryland’s immediate postwar history would have been dull in the extreme….At the time, all that seemed to be happening—or most everything with salt and spice, anyway—appeared to revolve around Samuel Chase….
“Chase was a man of peculiar breed, perfectly consistent by his own standards but wildly inconsistent by any other….[W]henever he appeared in public life in the capacity of an elected official, he artfully duped the people, led them by demagoguery into destructive ways, and exploited them without mercy; and they loved him and sang his praises and repeatedly reelected him….
“But when he appeared in public life in a different capacity, the capacity of institution-maker or institution-preserver, he worked with sublime statesmanship to protect the people against themselves, which is to say, against the like of himself. Thus in 1776, as the principal architect of Maryland’s revolutionary constitution, he created a system so fraught with checks and balances, and with powers so distributed between aristocracy and people, that destructive radicalism seemed impossible. Less than a decade later, as a member of the state’s House of Delegates, he engineered a movement to subvert that very constitution, and did so for the most flagrantly corrupt reasons and with the enthusiastic support of ‘the people,’ in whose name he did it….
“As a rogue who exploited public trust, Chase pursued private gain, but he probably did so more because he enjoyed the role than because he really coveted its fruits. Whatever his motives, he led Maryland’s proud and pretentious aristocrats by the nose for nearly a decade, and in so doing executed a dazzling series of maneuvers that accounted for most of the state’s major policy decisions.”
A physically large man, “Old Baconface,” a sobriquet he was given as a young attorney for his ruddy complexion, was in many ways, then, a larger-than-life character in Maryland. And that all happened before Chase’s rise to high federal judicial office, and the vortex of controversy in which he placed himself once more, precipitating an existential institutional crisis for the Supreme Court.
The expulsion in 1762 of Chase, the young attorney, from a debating club was for unspecified “extremely irregular and indecent behavior.” The founding of the local Sons of Liberty in 1765 was with another eventual signer of the Declaration of Independence, his friend William Paca, a wealthy planter and future governor, who was himself no stranger to political corruption. There was a failed attempt to corner the grain market through inside information after being elected to the Second Continental Congress. These incidents were the overture to the dynamic that marked the increasingly consequential relationship between Samuel Chase and the established political and social order.
Chase’s scheming then moved to the Maryland legislature, which, in the 1781-1782 session, adopted two laws favorable to Chase. The first was the creation of the office of Intendant of the Revenues, which placed in one office complete control over the state’s finances. The appointment went to a Chase associate, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, a future signer of the U.S. Constitution. The second deprived Loyalists of their rights and confiscated their property with a value of more than 500,000 Pounds Sterling at the time. That property was to be sold at public auction. Chase and various associates placed their men in crucial administrative positions and manipulated the sales to their advantage. Among those associates was Luther Martin, an influential Antifederalist who began a long tenure as Maryland’s attorney general in 1778 through Chase’s influence. Another was Thomas Stone, who also had signed the Declaration of Independence.
The Chase syndicate acquired confiscated property valued between 100,000 and 200,000 Pounds Sterling, an amount far beyond what they could pay. Their solution was to choreograph the auction process with the help of Intendant of Finance Jenifer so as to cancel that sale through questionable legal technicalities and end up, in a second sale, with a price that was one-tenth that of the original auction price. Even that amount was more than the syndicate had, so they undertook a several-year-long effort to delay payment and procure a law that would enable them to pay their obligation with an issue of depreciated Maryland paper currency.
Chase’s questionable dealings and political scheming caused him and his associates trouble at times. In the end, however, the scandals, investigations, and attendant calumnies did him no harm. The personal charm he could invoke when needed, the political demagoguery to which he freely resorted to portray himself as a tribune of the people and an opponent of aristocracy and Toryism, and the willingness to deflect attention from the negative consequences of a failed political scheme by fomenting another even more base and outrageous, served him well.
It is a cliche of a certain genre of entertainment that a plot featuring a lovable scoundrel or band of misfits needs a straight-laced, establishment foil. In the tale of Samuel Chase, that part was played by Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Carroll came from the leading family of Maryland Catholics. He was a wealthy planter, thought to have been the wealthiest person in the new nation, worth about $400 million in today’s money. He was also the most lettered of the generally well-educated signers of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was an early pro-independence agitator. As the leader of the Maryland Senate during the 1780s, he jousted politically with Chase and his allies over Chase’s schemes. While Carroll was able to blunt some of those schemes, Chase, in turn, succeeded in painting Carroll as a Tory. This was a supreme irony, indeed, in light of Carroll’s bona fides as a patriot who had been advocating violent revolution against Britain when Chase was still urging discussions.
In 1791, Chase became chief justice of the Maryland General Court, where he stayed until he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President George Washington in 1796. Chase served in that capacity until his death in 1811.
As the political temperature in the country heated up after passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Chase was drawn into the rhetorical clashes between Federalists and Jeffersonians. With relish, Chase denounced Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans as the party of “mobocracy.” Drawing on his experience as a partisan brawler during his days in Maryland politics, he denounced Jefferson, the Republicans, and Jeffersonian policies with his accustomed sharp tongue. Crucially for the events to follow, he did so while performing his judicial duties.
The nature of his position as a supposedly impartial and nonpolitical jurist had no impact on him.
Examples were Chase’s ham-handed actions in the trials in 1800 of, respectively, Thomas Cooper and James Callender for publishing libelous materials about John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. While Cooper was a sympathetic figure, Callender was a scandalmonger whose fate in the courtroom probably would not have stirred anyone, had Chase not made him a political martyr. Callender’s attacks on Hamilton had impressed Jefferson, who was pleased with anyone willing to sling rhetorical mud at the Federalists. Jefferson encouraged and subsidized Callender’s efforts and later pardoned him for his conviction in Chase’s courtroom. However, Jefferson soon became much less enchanted with Callender when the latter demanded he be appointed to a federal office. Upon Jefferson’s refusal, Callender switched political allegiances and, as a Federalist Party newspaper editor, published scurrilous articles that claimed Jefferson’s paternity of children born to Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Chase, meanwhile, continued his political activism. Not content to campaign as a sitting judge for President Adams’s reelection, he harangued a Baltimore grand jury in 1803 with a long charge which criticized the Jeffersonians for having repealed an Adams-era judiciary statute that Chase favored, and which condemned the idea of universal suffrage as unrepublican. The last was particularly ironic in light of his public persona as a man of the people and opponent of Toryism in his earlier political career in Maryland.
Having made himself the lightning rod for the Jeffersonians’ fury at what they saw as the Federalists entrenching themselves in the judiciary following the latters’ election loss in 1800, Chase became the target of an impeachment effort in the House of Representatives. The grand jury charge in 1803 may have been the catalyst, but Jefferson’s distaste for his cousin Chief Justice John Marshall and outrage at Marshall’s lectures to the executive branch in Marbury v. Madison that same year, helped produce the reaction. Indeed, it was broadly understood that a Chase impeachment was a dry-run for a more consequential attempt to remove Marshall.
Led by another of Jefferson’s cousins, the flamboyant ultra-republican majority leader John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, the House voted out eight articles of impeachment on March 12, 1804. The first seven denounced Chase’s “oppressive conduct” in the Sedition Act trials. The eighth dealt with the “intemperate and inflammatory political harangue” in Baltimore which was intended to “excite the fears and resentment…of the good people of Maryland against their state government…[and] against the Government of the United States.” In short, the Jeffersonians accused Chase of the seditious speech they previously claimed Congress could not prohibit under the Sedition Act. With that statute no longer in effect, there was no criminal act on which the impeachment was based. More significantly, since the Republicans had claimed that a federal law that targets seditious speech violates the First Amendment, Chase’s remarks were not even potentially indictable offenses. The vote was a strict party-line matter, 73-32. If party discipline held in the Senate trial, where the Republicans enjoyed a 25-9 advantage, Chase’s judicial tenure was doomed.
The trial was held in February, 1805, supervised by Vice-President Aaron Burr, still under investigation for his killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Chase’s lawyers, including his old political crony, close friend, and successful Supreme Court litigator, Luther Martin, argued that conviction required proof of an act that could be indicted under law. The House managers claimed that impeachment was not a criminal process. Since impeachment was the only way to remove federal judges, they asserted that “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” must include any willful misconduct or corrupt action that made the person unfit for judicial office. Their charges met that test, they averred, because Chase had acted as prosecutor as well as judge in the trials.
The effort failed. Even on the eighth charge, the Baltimore grand jury speech, six Republican Senators voted to acquit, leaving the prosecution four votes short of the necessary two-thirds vote for conviction. On the other, weaker, charges, the House fared worse. Chase’s acquittal diminished the threat which impeachment posed to the independence of the judiciary. Still, the two sides’ respective arguments over the purpose of impeachment and the meaning of the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” were replayed in subsequent such proceedings and continue to be contested today. After his trial, Chase stayed on the Court another six years. He remains the only Supreme Court justice to have been impeached.
Samuel Chase died in Baltimore in 1811 at the age of 70.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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