Review of “Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival” by Walter Stahr

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Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival
by Walter Stahr
832 pages
Simon & Schuster
Published: Feb 2022

Walter Stahr’s long-awaited biography of Salmon Chase was published three weeks ago. Stahr was a lawyer for two decades before embarking on a career as an author. His three other biographies also focus on important American political figures: John Jay, William Seward and Edwin Stanton.

Anyone who has read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s riveting biography of Abraham Lincoln is familiar with Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873). He was a passionate anti-slavery voice, a U.S. Senator, Governor of Ohio, helped establish the Republican Party, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court…and was the inspiration behind a large piece of what is now J.P. Morgan Chase.

This author’s fondness – almost reverence – for Chase is obvious from the book’s first pages and is occasionally distracting. But if Stahr works too hard in early chapters to position Chase as a more progressive thinker than his contemporaries (including Abraham Lincoln) at least the claim is convincingly-argued.

Almost every aspect of Chase’s life is subject to thorough scrutiny, but there are important people and moments that are frustratingly elusive. Notable examples: Chase’s wives (there were three), the Republican convention that nominated Lincoln for president (a nomination Chase had sought), and Lincoln’s cabinet selection process which landed Chase at the head of the Treasury Department.

A lack of historical evidence is responsible for Stahr’s brevity where Chase’s wives are concerned. But fans of Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” will be surprised to find that virtually none of the animated intensity she injected into her narrative found its way into Stahr’s version of the same events.

And while Chase’s career was impressive, it can be assumed that his personality did not often result in his being the life of a party. Similarly, while Stahr’s insight and analysis is consistently impressive, the narrative is often dry and lacks the literary joie de vivre that makes the very best biographies so utterly engrossing.

But this biography’s merits far outweigh its weaknesses. Stahr is consistently careful to provide context for new places, events and situations – important for readers unfamiliar with Chase or his era. He handles complex, and often arcane, topics adroitly. And he embeds dozens of photographs and images throughout the text – each placed in context-appropriate locations rather than being grouped together arbitrarily.

Readers with an interest in the topic of slavery will find this a valuable and wonderfully expansive history of the anti-slavery movement – particularly as seen from Chase’s perspective. And Stahr pays close attention to his subject’s early career as a lawyer when he enthusiastically defended escaped slaves as well as people prosecuted for assisting them.

Finally, while Chase’s decade on the Supreme Court can make for dry reading, these chapters are both insightful and incisive. Most readers will find the comparison of the Supreme Court of Chase’s time and of today to be fascinating. And a chapter discussing the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (again, largely from Chase’s judicial point-of-view) is memorably interesting.

Overall, Walter Stahr’s biography of Salmon Chase proves itself a very good biography of an important 19th-century political figure. While Stahr isn’t able to fully overcome his subject’s reserved demeanor and dry style, readers with a modicum of persistence will find this an unusually sober, thoughtful and penetrating biography. And it might be exactly the biography Salmon Chase deserves.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars