Chase, Samuel

Also found in: Encyclopedia.

Chase, Samuel

Samuel Chase served as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1796 to 1811. In 1804 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase. However, the Senate did not uphold the House's action and Chase continued to serve on the Court until his death. Chase remains the only justice who has been the subject of Impeachment proceedings. Chase's decisions set several precedents for the Supreme Court, among them opinions establishing the supremacy of federal treaties over state laws and the establishment of Judicial Review, which is the Court's power to void legislation it deems unconstitutional, a power that makes the judiciary one of the three primary branches of the federal government (the other two branches being Congress and the president).

"I cannot subscribe to the omnipotence of a State legislature."
—Samuel Chase

Known for his fiery and partisan manner, Chase was an active politician for most of his life. Before his career as a judge Chase served in the Maryland colonial and state legislatures. As a member of the Continental Congress in the 1770s, Chase was an outspoken advocate of American independence from Britain. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He opposed the Constitution as an Anti-Federalist (an opponent of federal government powers over the states) in the 1780s. Later, however, he became a member of the Federalist Party and as a Supreme Court justice helped establish the powers of the federal judiciary. Chase generally

The Samuel Chase Impeachment Trial

Originally an anti-Federalist opposed to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution on grounds that it deprived the states of their independence and sovereignty, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase changed his tune about the propriety of a strong central government once he saw the anarchy and madness wrought by the French Revolution. By the time he was seated on the nation's high court, Chase had earned a reputation for his zealous defense of the Federalist Party and his harsh criticism of the Democratic-Republican Party.

Generally speaking, the Federalist Party favored a strong national government, promoted legislation that advanced mercantile interests, supported the creation of a national bank, and believed that the federal government should be run by the most well-educated and affluent Americans. The Democratic-Republican Party generally favored stronger and more independent state governments, promoted legislation that advanced agricultural interests, opposed the creation of a national bank, and believed that the federal government should be run as a popular democracy, with its power being directly and closely derived from everyday, average Americans.

Chase's political beliefs endeared him to the White House while Federalist John Adams was in office. But in 1800 Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, and his Democratic-Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress. Chase had rankled Democratic-Republicans even before Jefferson took office. The beginning of the fall term of the Supreme Court in 1800 had to be postponed several weeks until Chase finished campaigning for John Adams in Maryland.

After Jefferson took office, Chase began openly assailing the president and his policies. Chase even took to condemning the Democratic-Republicans from the bench. In reading a charge to a Baltimore Grand Jury in May 1803, Chase unleashed what one contemporary observer called "a tirade against Democratic-Republican legislation." Dismayed that Jeffersonians in Maryland had established universal male suffrage, Chase suggested to the grand jurors that "the country … [was] headed down the road to mobocracy, the worst of all popular governments" and that, if left in power, Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans would eliminate "all security for property, and personal liberty." The "modern doctrine … that all men in a state of society are entitled to equal liberty and equal rights," Chase warned, will bring "mighty mischief upon us." Finally, Chase said that congressional Democratic-Republicans had gravely compromised the independence of the judiciary by repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801, which lame-duck Federalist lawmakers had passed to create extra federal judgeships for President Adams to fill.

When Jefferson learned of Chase's grand jury charge on May 13, 1803, he immediately wrote Joseph Nicholson, one of his party leaders in the House of Representatives, suggesting action against Chase: "Ought this seditious and official act on the principles of our Constitution, and on the proceedings of a State, to go unpunished? And to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures? I ask these questions for your consideration, for myself it is better that I should not interfere." Nicholson quietly alerted his Democratic-Republican colleagues as to Jefferson's suggestion. Less than a year later, on March 12, 1804, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase by a 73 to 32 margin, naming John Randolph, a cousin of Jefferson and a mercurial politician in his own right, to head the House Managers responsible for prosecuting Chase in his trial before the Senate.

The eight Articles of Impeachment centered on three charges. The first charge arose from Chase's remarks before the Baltimore grand jury. The second charge stemmed from his conduct in the 1800 Treason trial of John Fries. The third charge focused on Chase's conduct in the 1800 Sedition trial of James Callender. Together, the House managers argued, these three charges represented judicial misconduct amounting to impeachable High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Article II, Section 4 of the U.S Constitution provides that the federal judges "shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

The least serious of the charges concerned Chase's conduct in the Fries trial. Fries was accused of treason for leading a riot over a dwelling tax in Pennsylvania in 1799. At the outset of the Fries trial, Chase had delivered a written opinion in which he defined the meaning of treason as a Matter of Law, without ever hearing argument from the lawyers in the case. Fries' attorneys were flabbergasted. They withdrew from the case because, they contended, Chase's conduct had irrevocably tainted the jury pool and made a fair trial impossible. Without counsel, Fries was easily convicted. In defense of his actions, Chase told the Senate that before the jury began deliberating in the Fries case, he had instructed the jurors that they had the final word on the definition of treason and the final say on how that definition would be applied to the facts of the case.

The most serious charge concerned Chase's conduct at the Callender trial. Callender had been indicted under the provisions of the Sedition Act for publishing a book accusing John Adams of being a British toady and a monarchist. Passed in 1798 by a Federalist Congress, the Sedition Act made it a crime to speak or write in such a way as to bring the president or Congress "into contempt or disrepute." Jeffersonians viewed the act as a political tool that the Adams administration used to muzzle its opponents.

During the impeachment trial, the House Managers presented evidence that Chase had prejudged the Callender case. They offered testimony that Chase, upon first reading Callender's book, had expressed the intent to present the offending passages to a grand jury himself and obtain an indictment against the defendant. Chase admitted threatening such action but denied following through on the threat and argued that the threat by itself did not constitute a high crime or misdemeanor. The House Managers also presented evidence that Chase failed to exclude a juror from sitting on the jury, even though the juror had formed an unfavorable opinion about Callender. Chase admitted that one juror indicated having formed such an opinion, but Chase said that the same juror also said he had not formed an opinion about the specific charges against the defendant.

The trial began on February 9, 1805, and the House Managers took ten full days to present the testimony of more than 50 witnesses. Chase did not testify during the proceedings but instead read a prepared statement that attempted to refute the charges. Closing arguments started on February 20 and lasted several days. Martin Luther, one the country's most able and respected lawyers, represented Chase. Seven House Managers, led by Randolph, spoke for the prosecution. Thirty-Four senators weighed the evidence, 25 Democratic-Republicans and 9 Federalists. Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice president, presided over the proceedings. Twenty-two votes, or two-thirds of the Senate, were necessary for conviction.

On March 1, 1805, the Senate announced its verdicts. Chase was acquitted on all counts. The closest vote was 19–15 in favor of convicting Chase for his anti–Democratic-Republican remarks to the Baltimore grand jury. Contemporary observers and historians have given Martin Luther a lion's share of the credit for the acquittals. His closing argument deeply impressed the Senate with ideas that Chase was a wronged man and that the integrity and independence of the federal judiciary would be imperiled by conviction. John Randolph's closing argument, by contrast, was described as so ineffective, disorganized, shrill, and blatantly partisan that even Thomas Jefferson was alienated.

The failure of the Senate to convict allowed Chase to return to the Supreme Court and serve 6 more years as an associate justice. More importantly, the acquittal deterred the House of Representatives from using impeachment as a partisan political tool. Some historians have suggested that the Chase impeachment trial was just a Test Case for House Democratic-Republicans who would have pursued other impeachments more aggressively.

The Chase impeachment is also said to have left a lasting impression on Chase's friend, Chief Justice John Marshall, who spent much of his later career attempting to demonstrate that the nation's high court was separate from and even above party politics. In the final analysis, these two results represent flip sides of the same coin: one result increased the independence of the federal judiciary from interference by the legislative and executive branches, while the other result revealed the danger to that independence created by unelected federal judges who publicly attack the popular policies of democratically elected lawmakers.

Further readings

Presser, Stephen B. 1991. The Original Misunderstanding: The English, the Americans, and the Dialectic of Federalist Jurisprudence. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic.

Rehnquist, William H. 1992. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic.


High Crimes and Misdemeanors. favored a strong government ruled by an elite and he opposed the radical ideas of the French Revolution.

Chase was born April 17, 1741, in Somerset County, Maryland. His father, Thomas Chase, was a British-born clergyman of the Church of England. His mother, Matilda Walker Chase, died at Chase's birth. In 1744 the family moved to Baltimore where Chase grew up and received a classical education under his father's supervision. Chase studied law in Annapolis, Maryland, at the office of Attorney John Hall from 1759 until he was admitted to the bar in 1763. In 1762 Chase married Ann Baldwin. They had seven children, three of them dying in infancy. Ann died sometime between 1776 and 1779 and in 1784 Chase married Hannah Kitty Giles, with whom he had two daughters.

Chase established a successful law practice in Annapolis, the colonial capital and later the state capital of Maryland. He also became prominent in colonial politics. In 1764 he was elected to the lower house of Maryland's colonial legislature as a representative of Annapolis and by the early 1770s he had become well-known as a skillful legislator and outstanding leader, earning the nickname the Maryland Demosthenes after the ancient Greek orator and politician. He represented Maryland in the Continental Congresses from 1774 to 1778 and 1784 to 1785 and in 1778 served on as many as thirty committees in his tireless efforts to advance the cause of independence from Britain. He advocated a boycott of Britain and a political confederation of the colonies. He denounced those who opposed such policies as "despicable tools of power, emerged from obscurity and basking in proprietary sunshine." Together with Benjamin Franklin and Charles Carroll, Chase traveled in 1776 to Montreal in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Canada to join the American colonies in their revolt against England. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and worked for its acceptance in Maryland.

Chase helped draft the Maryland Constitution in 1776. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates for all but a year and a half between 1777 and 1788. When the U.S. Constitution came before the Maryland Convention for ratification Chase was in the minority of delegates who voted against it. He was an ardent Anti-Federalist at the time and argued that the Constitution concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the common individual. "I consider the Constitution," he wrote to a friend, "as radically defective in this essential: the bulk of the people can have nothing to say to it. The government is not a government of the people." He also argued that the Constitution failed to protect the Freedom of the Press and the right to trial by jury.

His opposition to the Constitution cost him his state legislative seat in 1788. The same year, Chase also went bankrupt after several of his speculative business ventures failed. These business risks had also damaged his political career, which had been plagued with charges that he used his office for personal gain. In 1778 he had been dismissed from the Continental Congress for two years for allegedly attempting to corner the flour market and profit from speculation on prices.

Dogged by Bankruptcy and charges of corruption, Chase sought refuge in the position of a local judge in Baltimore County in 1788. In 1791 he was concurrently appointed chief judge of the Maryland General Court. The state assembly, upset with his behavior on the bench and his holding two positions as judge, tried unsuccessfully to remove him from both positions.

Chase might seem to have been an unlikely choice for a Supreme Court justice. However, President George Washington nominated him to the Supreme Court on January 26, 1796. Over the years Washington had been impressed by Chase's legal skills; he also admired the zeal with which Chase had worked for American independence during the Revolutionary War as well as Chase's efforts in support of Washington in the Continental Congress. James McHenry of Maryland, the secretary of war and a friend of Washington's, strongly recommended Chase to Washington. Moreover, the Supreme Court was not very powerful or prestigious at the time and it was difficult to find a lawyer who would accept a position on it. The job did not pay well and justices had to travel long distances to preside over circuit courts.

Chase took his seat on the Court on February 4, 1796. He was an Anti-Federalist at the time of the Constitution's ratification but during his tenure on the Court he became a persuasive advocate for the federal judiciary's power to review legislation. Two cases from Chase's first session on the Supreme Court—Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 171, 1 L. Ed. 556, and Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 199, 1 L. Ed. 568, both decided in March 1796—stand out. In Hylton v. United States, the Court for the first time reviewed a law passed by Congress. Although the Court refrained from declaring its ability to void acts of Congress on constitutional grounds, its review nevertheless paved the way for marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803), which established the right of the Court to declare laws unconstitutional. At issue in Ware v. Hylton was whether a treaty decided by the federal government could take precedence over state laws. The U.S. government had made a treaty with Great Britain following the Revolutionary War that provided for the payment of debts owed to Great Britain. The states, meanwhile, had passed their own laws on this issue, many of which enabled U.S. citizens to forgo repaying their debts to British citizens. John Marshall, future chief justice of the Court, argued the case before the Court for the debtors. The Court ruled that the national treaty had precedent over state law. Of Chase's opinion in this case, constitutional scholar edward s. corwin wrote in 1930 that it "remains to this day the most impressive assertion of the supremacy of national treaties over State laws."

In Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (Dall.) 386, 1 L. Ed. 648 (1798), Chase wrote a highly influential opinion for the Court. He defined a constitutional interpretation of ex post facto laws—that is, retroactive laws, or laws that affect matters occurring before their enactment. Chase decided that the Constitution's prohibition of such laws extended only to criminal statutes that make prior conduct a crime, not to civil statutes. Chase also set a precedent by arguing that any law "contrary to the great first principles of the social compact" must be declared void. In his opinion, Chase emphasized that the Constitution limits the ability of legislators to disturb established property rights even when it does not expressly set forth such rights. Described by Presser as the natural-law basis of the Constitution, this argument broadened the Court's ability to test the constitutionality of legislation.

In United States v. Callender, Chase's Trial 65, Whart. St. Tr. 668, 25 F. Cas. 239, No. 14, 709 (C.C. Va.) (1800), Chase further defined the powers of the Court when he ruled that a jury could not decide the constitutionality of a law:

[T]he judicial power of the United States is the only proper and competent authority to decide whether any statute made by congress

(or any of the state legislatures) is contrary to, or in violation of, the federal constitution.… I believe that it has been the general and prevailing opinion in all the Union, that the power now wished to be exercised by a jury, belongs properly to the Federal Courts.

Chase also found himself embroiled in highly publicized political controversy for his actions both on and off the bench. For example, he made partisan speeches in 1796 for John Adams, the Federalist party candidate for president, even after he had taken the position of Supreme Court justice. He also pushed for passage of the alien and sedition act, 1 Stat. 596 (1798), which outlawed "false, scandalous, and malicious" attacks on the government, the president, or Congress. The law was designed largely to discourage criticism of President Adams by the rival Democratic-Republican Party, whose most well-known leader was Thomas Jefferson. In circuit court decisions in 1799 and 1800 Chase imposed harsh sentences on Democratic-Republicans who had published opinions critical of Adams's Federalist administration. In several cases Chase worked to keep Anti-Federalists off juries. In the case of John Fries of Pennsylvania, a strong supporter of Jefferson who had led rebellions against federal excise taxes, Chase sentenced the accused to death. President Adams subsequently set aside the sentence.

In 1800 the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., changed when Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency of the United States. In 1803 Chase got into trouble with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans when he severely criticized their policies in front of a Baltimore Grand Jury. Chase explained that he objected to recent changes in Maryland law that gave more men the privilege of voting. Such changes as these advanced by Democratic-Republicans, Chase exclaimed, would

rapidly destroy all protection to property, and all security to personal liberty, and our Republican Constitution [would] sink into mobocracy, the worst of all possible governments.… The modern doctrines by our late reformers, that all men in a state of society are entitled to enjoy equal liberty and equal rights, have brought this mighty mischief upon us, and I fear that it will rapidly destroy progress, until peace and order, freedom and property shall be destroyed.

This angered Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans and in 1804 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase on charges of misconduct and bias in the Sedition cases and of seditious criticism of Jefferson in the 1803 Baltimore grand jury charge. In 1805, the Democratic-Republican–controlled U.S. Senate moved to impeach Chase. Democratic-Republican senators charged that Chase had been guilty of judicial misconduct and that his partisan acts showed that he lacked political objectivity. Federalists defending Chase argued that he had committed no crime and that he could not be convicted under the constitutional definition of High Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Senate failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Chase and he remained on the Court until his death.

Chase's acquittal set an important precedent for the Court—no Supreme Court justice could be removed simply because of his or her political beliefs. The failure to impeach Chase allowed Chief Justice Marshall to assert and define the powers of the Court in future decisions with more confidence. It was thus a step in the process of defining the independence of the Supreme Court as one of the three primary branches of U.S. government.

Chase avoided controversy in his subsequent work on the Court. His near impeachment served as a warning both to him and to other justices to be careful in their choice of words while in office. As Chase suffered in later years from declining health, Marshall became the most vocal justice and assumed Chase's position as the lightning rod for the Court.

Chase died June 19, 1811, in Baltimore. He was interred in St. Paul's Cemetery.

Further readings

Dilliard, Irving. 1969. "Samuel Chase." In The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions, ed. Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. New York: Chelsea House.

Haw, James. 1993. "Samuel Chase." In The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993, ed. Claire Cushman. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.


Constitution of the United States "Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists" (In Focus); Fries's Rebellion.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.