Chase moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he quickly gained a position of prominence at the bar as an abolitionist lawyer. He maintained a country home near Loveland. He published an annotated edition of the laws of Ohio which was long considered a standard. The death of his first wife, Katherine Jane Garmiss, in 1835, shortly after their wedding in March 1834, triggered Chase's spiritual reawakening and devotion to causes such as abolition.
For his defense of escaped slaves seized in Ohio under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, Chase was dubbed the Attorney General for Fugitive Slaves. His argument in the case of Jones v. Van Zandt on the constitutionality of fugitive slave laws before the U.S. Supreme Court attracted particular attention. In this and similar cases, the court ruled against him, and John Van Zandt's conviction was upheld. Chase contended that slavery was local, not national, and that it could exist only by virtue of positive state law. He argued that the federal government was not empowered by the Constitution to create slavery anywhere and that when a slave leaves the jurisdiction of a state where slavery is legal, he ceases to be a slave; he continues to be a man and leaves behind the law that made him a slave.
Elected as a Whig to the Cincinnati City Council in 1840, Chase left that party the next year. For seven years he was the leader of the Liberty Party in Ohio. He helped balance its idealism with his pragmatic approach and political thought. He was skillful in drafting platforms and addresses, and he prepared the national Liberty platform of 1843 and the Liberty address of 1845. Building the Liberty Party was slow going. By 1848 Chase was leader in the effort to combine the Liberty Party with the Barnburners or Van Buren Democrats of New York to form the Free Soil Party.
Chase drafted the Free-Soil platform and it was chiefly through his influence that Van Buren was their nominee for President in 1848. In 1849, Chase was elected to the U.S Senate from Ohio on the Free Soil ticket. Chase's goal, however, was not to establish a permanent new party organization, but to bring pressure to bear upon Northern Democrats to force them to oppose the extension of slavery.
During his service in the Senate (1849–1855), Chase was an anti-slavery champion. He argued against the Compromise of 1850 After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation and the subsequent violence in Kansas, Chase cut back on his efforts to influence the Democrats.
In 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio. Chase was the first Republican governor of Ohio, serving from 1856 to 1860, where he supported women's rights, public education, and prison reform.
Chase sought the Republican nomination for president in 1860. With the exception of William H. Seward, Chase was the most prominent Republican in the country and had done more against slavery than any other Republican. But he opposed a "protective tariff", favored by most other Republicans, and his record of collaboration with Democrats annoyed many Republicans who were former Whigs.
Chase served as Secretary of the Treasury in President Lincoln's cabinet from 1861 to 1864, during the Civil War. In that period of crisis, there were two great changes in American financial policy, the establishment of a national banking system and the issue of paper currency. The former was Chase's own particular measure. He suggested the idea, worked out the important principles and many of the details, and induced the Congress to approve them. It not only secured an immediate market for government bonds, but also provided a permanent, uniform and stable national currency. Chase ensured that the Union could sell debt to pay for the war effort. He worked with Jay Cooke & Company to successfully manage the sale of $500 million in government war bonds (known as 5/20s) in 1862.
The first issue of $1 notes in 1862 as legal tender, featuring Chase
The first U.S. federal currency, the greenback demand note, was printed in 1861–1862 during Chase's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. It was Chase's responsibility to design the notes. In an effort to further his political career, his face appeared on a variety of U.S. paper currency, starting with the $1 bill so that the people would recognize him.
On October 10, 1862, Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles wrote that "a scheme for permits, special favors, Treasury agents, and improper management" existed and was arranged by Treasury Secretary Chase for General John A. Dix. The motive of Chase appeared to be for political influence and not for financial gain.
Perhaps Chase's chief defect was an insatiable desire for high office. Throughout his term as Treasury Secretary, Chase exploited his position to build up political support for another run at the Presidency in 1864.
He also tried to pressure Lincoln by repeatedly threatening resignation, which he knew would cause Lincoln difficulties with the Radical Republicans.
To honor Chase for introducing the modern system of banknotes, he was depicted on the $10,000 bill printed from 1928 to 1946. Chase was instrumental in placing the phrase "In God We Trust" on United States coins in 1864.
In June 1864, Lincoln surprised Chase by accepting his third offer of resignation. The Republican Party had at that point already nominated Lincoln as its presidential candidate and the Treasury was in solid shape, so Lincoln no longer needed to keep Chase in the cabinet to forestall a challenge for the presidential nomination.
But to placate the Radical wing of the party, Lincoln mentioned Chase as a potential Supreme Court nominee. When Chief JusticeRoger B. Taney died in October 1864, Lincoln named Chase to replace him. Lincoln issued the nomination on December 6, 1864. Chase was confirmed by the Senate that very day, and immediately received his commission, holding the office from 1864 until his own death in 1873. Chase was a complete change from the pro-slavery Taney; one of Chase's first acts as Chief Justice was to admit John Rock as the first African-American attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court.
Among his most prominent decisions while on the court were:
Texas v. White (74 U.S. 700), 1869, in which he asserted that the Constitution provided for a permanent union, composed of indestructible states, while allowing some possibility of divisibility "through revolution, or through consent of the States";
Veazie Banks v. Fenno (75 U.S 533), 1869, upholding banking legislation of the Civil War that imposed a 10% tax on state banknotes; and
Hepburn v. Griswold (75 U.S. 603), 1870, which declared certain parts of the legal tender acts to be unconstitutional. When the legal tender decision was reversed after the appointment of new Justices, in 1871 and 1872 (Legal Tender Cases, 79 U.S. 457), Chase prepared a very able dissenting opinion.
He gradually drifted back toward his old Democratic allegiance, and made an unsuccessful effort to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1868. He "was passed over because of his stance in favor of voting rights for black men". In 1871, The New Departure policy of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham was endorsed by Chase. He helped found the Liberal Republican Party in 1872, unsuccessfully seeking its presidential nomination. Chase was also a Freemason, active in the lodges of Midwestern society. He collaborated with John Purdue, the founder of Lafayette Bank and Purdue University. Eventually, JP Morgan Chase & Co. would purchase Purdue National Corporation of Lafayette, Indiana in 1984.
As early as 1868 Chase concluded that:
Congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens and all unable to take its prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of despotic military governments for the States and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions; no classes excluded from suffrage; and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and of sincere attachment to the constitutional Government of the United States.
In May 1865 Chase was elected a 3rd class companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). MOLLUS was an organization of Union officers who had served in the Civil War which allowed distinguished civilians who had supported the Union cause to join as 3rd class companions. Chase was one of the first to receive this honor and was assigned MOLLUS insignia number 46.
Chase's portrait appears on the United States $10,000 bill, the largest denomination of U.S. currency to publicly circulate. The bill was last printed in 1945. In 1969, the Federal Reserve began withdrawing high-denomination bills from circulation and only 336 $10,000 bills had not been returned for destruction.
^pp. 166, 175, 177, 227, 318, Welles, Gideon. Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. I, 1861 – March 30, 1864. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.