This is one of the first in a new series of books, "Landmark Law Cases and American Society," designed for classroom and
general readers. Each volume in the series examines an important American law case (or cases) in order to demonstrate how
the case can enhance public understanding of American law and society.
Harold Hyman of Rice University, a leading authority on nineteenth-century legal history, examines two cases in the judicial
career of Salmon P. Chase, a veteran of the antebellum antislavery movement, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury,
and Chief Justice in the Supreme Court from 1864 to 1873. Nearly three-fourths of the text is devoted to the life and times of
the chief justice, but Hyman makes frequent connections between these early biographical pages and the two cases that Justice
Chase would hear in the late 1860s.
Hyman stresses Chase's New England roots, strong religious upbringing, and native intelligence. Born into a prominent New
Hampshire family in 1808, Chase counted among his relatives an Episcopal bishop, a United States senator, several lawyers,
and a state chief justice. The Chase family's accomplishments and interests in politics, religion, and law provided the future chief
justice with an upbringing far different from that experienced by his contemporary and future colleague, Abraham Lincoln.
After his father's death, his mother farmed young Salmon out to her brother-in-law Philander Chase, the Episcopal bishop of
Ohio. The bishop required hard work, close study, and firm discipline from his nephew, and the younger Chase soon took on
some of the characteristics of his uncle. A "ponderous self-righteousness" (p. 14) marked his personality from youth, so much
that his later Senate colleague, Benjamin Wade, remarked that "He thinks . . . [that he] is a fourth person in the Trinity" (p. 15).
Chase suffered through a barely adequate education at Cincinnati College before earning Phi Beta Kappa membership and his
undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College in 1826.
After a brief career as a school teacher, Chase apprenticed himself to the famous Washington lawyer and United States
Attorney General, William Wirt. Taking advantage of Wirt's extensive law library, Chase studied and prepared for the bar
examination, taking special notice of equity as a branch of the law. He would use equity pleadings on numerous occasions
before the Civil War to defend runaway slaves and to decide one of the cases examined in this book -- IN RE TURNER (24
Fed. Cas. 337  14, 247).
The new lawyer established a practice in Cincinnati and, after the usual slow start, gradually built up a list of clients. For thirty
years Chase lived and eventually prospered in Ohio, first as a lawyer and then as a politician. His most famous cases during this
period involved his defenses of fugitive slaves and their benefactors, but Chase's appeals to equity and to the idea that freedom
was national while slavery was local were consistently unsuccessful. Nevertheless, these widely reported cases brought him to
the attention of other antislavery lawyers and politicians throughout the North, and he became known as the attorney general for
runaway slaves. Partly due to his high profile in booming Cincinnati, Chase was eventually elected to two terms in the United
States Senate and two terms as governor. His robust ambition led him to grasp at the Republican nomination for the presidency
in 1860, but another western lawyer from a more humble background won the nomination and the election.
Hyman devotes little space to Chase's activities as a United States senator, governor, and Secretary of the Treasury. Instead,
the author focuses more on Chase's antislavery views and how they quickly shifted under the pressure of war to calls for the
total and immediate abolition of slavery and the elevation of all Americans, black and white, to legal equality and political rights.
Chase's more rapid conversion to abolitionism and equality soon led to "famous, frequent, and sometimes furious
confrontations over policy and patronage" with President Lincoln (p. 71). The Secretary of the Treasury was advanced as an
alternative to Lincoln in the presidential campaign of 1864, but the pragmatic Lincoln once again prevailed over the radical
Chase. After one of Chase's several offers to resign, Lincoln finally accepted the Secretary's resignation in June 1864. When
Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died in December, Lincoln removed a political rival and gained a judicial
supporter by appointing Chase, defender of fugitive slaves, to succeed Taney, author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scott
In the ninth of ten chapters, Hyman finally addresses the case of IN RE TURNER, a suit that arose in Chase's circuit court for
Maryland and Virginia in 1867. Elizabeth Turner, a young woman who had been a slave until freed by Maryland's
emancipation law, had been apprenticed to her former master by her mother under the terms of Maryland's apprenticeship law.
With the help of an able Freedmen's Bureau lawyer, Turner sued for release from the apprenticeship on the grounds that black
apprentices were not given the same rights as white apprentices under Maryland law (contrary to the provisions of the Civil
Rights Act of 1866) and that her apprenticeship was in effect involuntary servitude (a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment).
Chase's opinion in the case, which granted Turner's request, gave him the opportunity to express his views of the Thirteenth
Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. The amendment, he wrote, "establishes freedom as the constitutional right of all persons in
the United States," and the Civil Rights Act assures "all citizens, without regard to race or color, `full and equal benefit of all
laws and proceedings . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens'"(p. 129). Elizabeth Turner was a free and equal citizen of the United
States and deserved all the protections and rights of any white citizen. Chase, in Hyman's words, believed that "the Thirteenth
Amendment had redefined and elevated the legal status of every American to that of free persons, thereby limiting states'
capacities substantively to impair that status, even in the guise of private employer/apprenticeship contracts" (p. 123). To
Chase, then, the Thirteenth Amendment and its enabling legislation, the Civil Rights Act, completely overturned not only the
formal institution of slavery but also the overtones and aftereffects of slavery.
Even as he listened to the arguments of Turner's lawyer in 1867, Chase had among his papers a brief for a far more famous
future case, TEXAS V. WHITE (74 U.S. 700 ). The postwar government of Texas sued George W. White and other
Texans to recover antebellum U.S. bonds that the Confederate state government had confiscated and sold to third parties.
Lawyers for White argued that the postwar state of Texas no longer existed, that it had lost its status as a state once it had
seceded in 1861, that Congress still did not consider Texas an equal state, and that therefore this so-called state could not sue
in a Federal court. The opposing attorney held that the state of Texas had always existed and that the state did have a legitimate
claim to the bonds.
Chief Justice Chase assigned himself to write the majority opinion in the case. Because of his long career as an antislavery
lawyer, governor, cabinet officer, and Federal judge, and because he had long pondered the legal status of the Confederate
states, Chase was the perfect man for the job, according to Hyman. One statement in his opinion was instantly famous and has
become "a national motto": "The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible
states." In other words, the state of Texas, like all other Confederate states, had remained a state of the United States
throughout the war and afterward, claims by some radical Republicans and conservative Texas Democrats to the contrary
notwithstanding. Thus, the postwar government of Texas did have a right to sue for recovery of the bonds. Congress's postwar
treatment of Texas in no way compromised Texas's condition as a state because Congress was only carrying out its
constitutional duty to guarantee to Texas (and each former Confederate state) a republican form of government. This latter
statement clearly implied that Congress's 1867 plan of Reconstruction was legitimate and just. In this one sweeping opinion,
Chase defined for the nation the meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction: secession was impossible and had never
occurred, and Congress's insistence on legal equality for all citizens and political rights for black males was necessary and
Of the two cases Hyman examines, TEXAS V. WHITE had a far greater impact then and since. IN RE TURNER -- partly
because it did not have the imprimatur of the Supreme Court and partly because popular attention in 1867-1868 was riveted
on the Test Oath cases, the decision in EX PARTE MILLIGAN, and the proposed treason trial of Jefferson Davis -- was soon
forgotten. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why Hyman chose to emphasize the Turner case so strongly, given its obscurity at
the time and ever since -- unless he intended merely to clarify Chase's thinking about the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment
and the Civil Rights Act. Equal treatment with TEXAS V. WHITE does seem an unusual weighting of their relative importance.
Additionally, for a book aimed at undergraduates and the general reading public, this one will require a strong commitment on
the part of its readers. Hyman's penetrating understanding of nineteenth-century legal history is widely and rightly admired, but
his syntax and long, complex sentences will try the patience of most general readers.
In sum, this is an authoritative and revealing examination of two legal cases (one more important than the other) of the
Reconstruction period. Professor Hyman melds Chase's earlier life with mid-nineteenth-century American history in general and
with the chief justice's reasoning in both cases and thereby provides the diligent reader with a sophisticated analysis of what the
Civil War and Reconstruction meant to Chase and the Supreme Court in the late 1860s.