Did you know… Samuel Chase?

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Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase ( April 17, 1741 – June 19, 1811 ) was an only child, born to Reverend Thomas Chase and Matilda Walker in Somerset County, Maryland. His father was a learned man, having emigrated from England, and undertook to be Samuel’s teacher – homeschooling in the 1700s. When Samuel was only two years old, his family moved to Baltimore, then little more than a country village, where his father became rector of St. Paul’s.

At eighteen, Samuel went to Annapolis to study law under attorney John Hall, who also became a member of the Continental Congress. In 1762, at the age of twenty-one, Samuel was admitted to the bar, and began his own practice. He met and married “the amiable and intelligent Miss Ann Baldwin, and soon obtained the reputation of a sound lawyer and an able advocate”, as well as a man of independent mind, and cheerful temperament. He could be difficult to persuade, and stubborn or determined in his views.

Samuel chugged along, gaining reputation and prosperity until the Stamp Act in 1765. Samuel was incensed by this abuse of royal power and opposed the royal governor. He joined the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty. When the stamps came into port, the Sons seized and burned them, while also burning an effigy of the royal tax collector. This made him a target of all Tories, and they began a newspaper campaign intended to smear his reputation – but it didn’t work. Samuel handled them with aplomb, wit, and sarcasm. Instead, it gained him a following that propelled him into the colonial assembly, and after the closing of Boston port, into the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

He served in this capacity, ever an advocate of freedom, and was appointed to accompany Benjamin Franklin and the Carrolls on a trip to Canada, designed to convince the Canadians to join the fight for freedom in the spring of 1776. Though the mission was not successful, it is a mark of Samuel’s fervency for freedom that he attempted it. On return to Philadelphia, he resumed the deliberations leading to independence and was present for the signing on August second.

In Philadelphia at this time, some members of the Society of Friends, ever opposed to war, attempted to dissuade patriots from taking up arms and worked in concert with the Tories to prevent separation of the colonies from Britain. They attempted to split the patriot cause by offering half measures that some would find acceptable. The Continental Congress was alarmed and chose Samuel to help defeat these forces, which he was only too ready to do. On investigation, Samuel discovered those that were circulating the troublesome pamphlets and their collusion with the royal authorities.

The exposure resulted in the confinement of several leading Quakers, a suppression of the seditious papers, and a course of more respectful neutrality by the society.

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 5326-5327).

Samuel is quoted as saying: “You cannot but remember how reluctantly we were dragged into this arduous contest, and how repeatedly, with the earnestness of humble entreaty, we supplicated a redress of our grievances from him who ought to have been the father of his people. In vain did we implore his protection; in vain appeal to the justice, the generosity of Englishmen; of men who had been the guardians, the asserters and vindicators of liberty through a succession of ages; men, who, with their swords had established the firm barrier of freedom, and cemented it with the blood of heroes. Every effort was vain; for even whilst we were prostrated at the foot of the throne, that fatal blow was struck which hath separated us forever. Thus spurned, contemned and insulted; thus driven by our enemies into measures which our souls abhorred, we made a solemn appeal to the tribunal of unerring wisdom and justice. To that Almighty ruler of princes whose kingdom is overall. “We were then quite defenseless. Without arms, without ammunition, without clothing, without ships, without money, without officers skilled in war; with no other reliance but the bravery of our people and the justice of our cause.”

L. Carroll Judson. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of Washington and Patrick Henry / With an appendix, containing the Constitution of the United States, and other documents (Kindle Locations 5344-5352).

Just as career success seemed assured, personal tragedy struck when Ann died, leaving him the caretaker of their four children, two sons, and two daughters. He was gone from home frequently. In 1778, he fell into scandal as he used insider information obtained from Congress to attempt to gain a monopoly on the flour market – in the next election, he lost his place. From 1783-84 he was in England, attempting to regain his reputation and recover bonds for the state of Maryland from unscrupulous Tories, gaining about $650,000. On return to the United States, Samuel sponsored William Pickney, and aided his legal education, as well as meeting and marrying his second wife, Hannah Kilty, daughter of Samuel Giles, a physician. He and Hannah had two daughters.

Life seemed to be righting itself for Samuel. In 1788, he became chief justice of the Baltimore County court, and later Chief Justice of the Maryland Supreme court. He entered some business deals, all of which turned out badly, and became insolvent in 1789. In 1796, he was appointed Associate Justice of the United States Supreme court.

On the court, he was a strong Federalist and ran into opposition from Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Chase brought down the wrath of the Congress by making political remarks from the bench and acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the only Supreme Court justice ever impeached by the House, though acquitted in the Senate. Jefferson’s cousin and friend, Congressman John Randolph, launched impeachment proceedings against Justice Chase. Chase argued he was being persecuted for his political convictions rather than any actual crimes. Chase died while still serving as an associate justice, two months after turning seventy. He refused medical treatment on his deathbed, saying, “God gives life, he and no other”.

“There is no repentance in the grave; for after death comes judgment; and as you die so you must be judged. By repentance and faith, you are the object of God’s mercy; but if you will not repent, and have faith and dependance upon the merits of the death of Christ, you die a hardened and impenitent sinner, you will be the object of God’s justice and vengeance. You will sincerely repent and believe, God hath pronounced his forgiveness; and there is no crime too great for his mercy and pardon.” – Samuel Chase

as judge, trial of John Fries, 1800