Founding Fathers Friday: Samuel Chase

by Derrick G. Jeter

Samuel Chase had a most unfortunate nickname: Old Bacon Face. He probably received this moniker because of his reddish-brown complexion. He might as well have received it because he was often hot under the collar and the sizzle and pop of his tongue burned many an enemy.
Chase was the son of an Episcopal minister, but it seems the lesson of curbing his tongue was lost on him. As a young man, Chase was one of the members of the Sons of Liberty in Annapolis, Maryland. During the Stamp Act debates, Chase broke into the tax collector’s office, destroyed the stamps and burned the collector in effigy. This bit of vandalism spurred the Loyalist mayor of Annapolis to denounce Chase in the local paper. Chase, never to turn down a good verbal sparring match, struck back in the same paper: “I admit, gentlemen, that I was one of those who committed to the flames, in effigy, the Stamp distributor of this province, and who openly disputed the Parliamentary right to tax the colonies, while you skulked in your houses. . . . Others of you meanly grumbled in your corners and not daring to speak your sentiments.”
Chase always dared to speak his sentiments. After studying law in Annapolis, he was elected to the Maryland Assembly and spoke his sentiments quite freely against Parliament and the royal governor. According to one early biography, Chase “became obnoxious to the authorities of Annapolis, and they attempted, by degrading epithets, to crush his eagle spirit while yet a fledgling. But their persecution extended his notoriety, and he soon became popular with the great mass of the people.” He became so popular that Maryland sent Chase to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and returned him the following year—and he always spoke his sentiments freely, including his sentiments about independence.
In 1776, as a member of Congress, Chase, along with fellow Marylander Charles Carroll and Benjamin Franklin, traveled to Canada in hopes of persuading the Canadians to join in their revolt against the British Crown. The mission proved unsuccessful. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Chase learned that the Maryland assembly was dithering over the question of independence. Chase and Carroll quickly repacked their bags and set off for Annapolis on another mission of persuasion. Fortunately, this mission proved successful—Maryland granted her delegates the permission to vote for independence.
Chase was in Maryland on July 2, 1776, when the historic vote was taken—a fact which galled him. His wife was sick, so he was unable to make it back to Philadelphia in time to vote—though many myths have sprung up indicating he was there in early July, along with all fifty-six signers to sign on July 4, 1776 (which, of course never took place). For one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of independence to miss casting a vote for independence, however, was almost too much for Chase. In a July 5 letter, before he received word of the vote, Chase lamented 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?”
Chase answered his own question when he signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, leaving an indelible mark to posterity that he gave his assent.
Signing the Declaration was the high point in Chases political career. Though he remained in Congress for a few years afterward, and would later become a justice of the Supreme Court, trouble seemed to follow in his wake—usually as a result of his own big mouth. He was forced to leave Congress in 1778, under a cloud of scandal. Newspapers reported that Chase used insider information to profit from rising flour prices due to the war. He returned to Maryland, invested him money poorly, and found himself broke. For the next ten years he devoted himself to the practice of law, in an effort to regain a healthier financial footing.
In 1788, Chase was appointed as the chief justice of the criminal court for the newly organized judicial district of Baltimore. He was also chosen as a member of the state ratifying convention to consider the new federal Constitution. At about the same time, he was appointed to serve as chief justice of the Maryland Supreme Court. Then, in 1796, President George Washington came calling—nominating Chase as a jurist to the United States Supreme Court.
Once ensconced on the federal bench, Chase’s obnoxious ways came to the surface once again. Some people objected to the way he badgered attorneys from the bench. Others objected to his frequent partisan diatribes from the bench. And when Thomas Jefferson was elected to the presidency, Chase couldn’t resist bad-mouthing the new president and his administration. “Under Jefferson,” he said, “our republican Constitution will sink to Mobocracy, the worst of all possible governments.”
Chase’s political banter was too much for the House of Representatives. In 1804, the House voted articles of impeachment against Justice Chase, claiming his political views biased his rulings from the bench. When the issued moved over to the Senate, the trial bogged down. Finally, in March 1805, Chase was acquitted. To this day, Chase has been the only Supreme Court justice impeached. His trial set the precedent that judges cannot be impeached, sued, or removed from the bench because of their personal convictions.
Chase served on the federal bench for fifteen years, forced to retire due to gout. When he died, at the age of seventy, he was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore. The final resting place of this early patriot is near the final resting place of a latter patriot: Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I think Chase would be pleased, for our national anthem is a resounding sentiment of independence. A sentiment Chase freely voiced his whole life.