Founding Fathers - Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Born: April 17, 1741 (Princess Anne, MD)

Died: June 19, 1811 (Baltimore, MD)

This week we will introduce ourselves to Samuel Chase, a native resident and representative of Maryland, who had a colorful and perhaps checkered life.  Born just outside of the town of Princess Anne, Samuel's parents had been married for just over a year when he was born.  His father, Thomas, had studied medicine at Cambridge before choosing the Anglican priesthood for his vocation, but he was nevertheless unable to save his wife, Matilda, who died during childbirth.  Samuel was raised and educated by his father, and by the age of 18 had moved to Baltimore to study law.  Despite an apprenticeship with a law firm, his financial resources were limited even as he began to gain acceptance in social circles.  He was admitted to the bar in 1761, married his wife Anne in 1762, had his first daughter in 1763, and was elected to Maryland's General Assembly in 1764 at the age of 23.  As a young attorney the bulk of his work involved cases representing members of the "middling class", and while very little financial gain was initially made this way he was able to develop relationships and loyalty among those who would quickly coalesce into a formidable constituency when he turn his attention towards politics.  His rise to prominence cost him the support of many social elites, but even at such a young age he had become a very difficult man to ignore.

One year after joining the assembly, Samuel found himself a leader in the opposition to Britain's Stamp Act, and actively participated in resistance against it as a member of the Sons of Liberty.  He led a mob to tear down the building where the official stamped paper was to be held, scaring away the government official in charge of distributing it, and making the law impossible to enforce throughout Maryland.  Although it was illegal for courts to operate without the stamps, Chase's law practice was immediately open for business in defiance of the Act.  A year later the Stamp Act was repealed.  Although Samuel Chase, alongside his close friend William Paca, was a vocal supporter of colonial rights and was even branded by Loyalist opponents as a foul-mouthed and incendiary riot leader, it would not be until Parliament closed Boston Harbor in response to the Boston Tea Party that Chase would actually take a stand in writing against Britain.  In 1774 he called for a boycott of all British goods to counter the Boston Port Act, and the Maryland Assembly sent correspondence to the other colonies to authorize the creation of a body to assess their relationship with Britain.

As a representative of Maryland to the First Continental Congress, Samuel Chase was able to befriend men from other states, including John Adams.  He focused primarily on British regulations involving trade and managed to avoid joining or alienating the various factions focused on either independence from or reconciliation with the Crown.  Upon returning home, however, it was quickly obvious that it would be impossible to remain neutral as both compliance and resistance to taxation laws had become militant.  Once blood was shed at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, the Second Continental Congress was convened to answer the question of independence once and for all.  In March, 1776, Chase was selected as part of a group that traveled to Quebec to gain the support of Canadians in the struggle for freedom, and while the venture proved unsuccessful he penned a letter to John Adams in his absence to focus all his efforts on securing support for an armed conflict.  He was stunned to learn upon his return on June 11, however, that Maryland's provincial government had instructed their delegates to oppose independence and seek reconciliation with Britain.  Chase quickly rode back to Annapolis and took his case straight to the "middling class" that had long supported him.  By June 28 a throng of people crying out for independence prompted a unanimous vote by the same provincial body to allow delegates to cast votes for independence.  Covering the 150 mile journey in just two days, the 35-year-old rushed the news to the delegates in Philadelphia before turning for home once again to be with his sick wife.

Missing out on the opportunity to cast his vote due to his absence, Samuel Chase was able to return to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2.  Although his wife died during the war and he was left to care for their four surviving children, he remained active in participating in the decisions affecting the Continental Army and their senior leadership, especially in promoting George Washington to command.  He lost his seat in the Continental Congress in 1778, however, after attempting to use his inside knowledge to make money on the flour market while the governing body was approving the purchase of flour for the army.  Although his reputation was severely damaged, his longtime friend came to his aid in 1783.  William Paca, by then serving as governor of Maryland, sent Chase to England to sell the state's stock in the Bank of England, although it was politically and legally disputed.  It took 20 years for the matter to finally be settled in Maryland's favor (and another 6 for Chase to receive his commission), but it also provided the opportunity for Samuel to meet and marry his second wife, Hannah.  The couple sought to improve their situation by moving from Annapolis to Baltimore, and Samuel attempted to resume his legal practice as well as his political career.  As an Antifederalist he opposed the writing and ratification of the Constitution, and it effectively ended his legislative career.  As before, however, he had a powerful friend in a leadership position that was willing to help.  George Washington's election, along with the ratification of the Bill of Rights, softened Chase's criticism of the Constitution, and in 1796 the president nominated him to the Supreme Court.

The final act of Samuel Chase's life was one of the most influential, as he helped ensure the balance of power between branches of government and establish Judicial authority to determine whether laws were contrary to the Constitution.  As his views became increasingly Federalist he attracted the ire of Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans, who rejected his decisions as political and partisan.  In 1804, Jefferson arranged to have impeachment proceedings against Chase in an effort to dent the Federalist leanings of the Court.  Acquitted by the Senate of all charges in 1805, he remains the only member of the Supreme Court to undergo impeachment proceedings.  He held his position until his death in 1811.

The signature of Samuel Chase can be found as the second name on the third column beneath the Declaration of Independence, directly beneath that of John Hancock.


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