BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Niven, why did you decide to do a biography on Salmon P. Chase?
NIVEN: Well, no biography had been done of Chase for 60 years or so, and then the only other biography of Chase was an academic biography, and that came out while I was working on the research for Chase. He was a very important statesman in the 19th century. When he became Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, he and Seward were better known to the public than Lincoln was. He had been around for a long time. He had a big reputation as a defender of fugitive slaves. He had been the first republican governor of Ohio. He had been the U.S.. senator before that on the Free Soil ticket. He was actually the founder of the Free Soil party and coined the famous slogan, "free soil, free labor, free men," which energized the Free Soil movement, a third party movement which didn't get anywhere but certainly advertised Chase.
LAMB: What years did he live?
NIVEN: 1808 to 1873. And he was 65 when he died, a man who was supremely industrious and supremely ambitious. And as I noted, I think, in the book, Lincoln referred to him as, the ambition was a maggot in his brain. First of all, he tried to ease Lincoln out of the nomination in 1860. And then while he was an important member of the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury, he constantly intrigued, trying to get the nomination away from Lincoln in 1864. He was not successful.
LAMB: You learn early that he was a man that had three wives that died?
LAMB: Six children, and four of them died?
LAMB: Before we get into some of the others, explain all that. Who was his first wife?
NIVEN: First wife was Katherine Garniss, local belle in Cincinnati. She died of, I guess we would call it, puerperal fever after the birth of the baby. And that child lived to be four or five, and died of scarlet fever, an epidemic in Cincinnati. Second wife was a woman named Smith, not quite the social standing of the first wife, but 18-year-old lovely lady. And she was the mother of Kate Chase Sprague, who became a Washington belle during the Civil War. She had another child and, unfortunately, contracted tuberculosis and died. Third wife came from a very illustrious family in Cincinnati named Ludlow. And she was the mother of Nettie, the younger daughter of Salmon P. Chase, who lived to maturity and way beyond.
LAMB: His picture right here?
NIVEN: Yes, that's the third wife, over here, right here.
LAMB: Yes. What impact did that have on him?
NIVEN: Well, He never married again.
LAMB: What year do you remember that his third wife died?
NIVEN: Let's see, 1850, '51, somewhere in there, '52.
LAMB: So he would have been in his '40s?
LAMB: He'd lost three wives?
NIVEN: Three wives and a lot of children in that period.
LAMB: And when you went looking for that information as to how that impacted, where did you find it?
NIVEN: Well, there were two 19th century, so-called biographies of Chase, which were pretty poor biographies, but they had a lot of material in them, personal material and a very rich source for a biography. That was the first effort. And then Chase, when he was running against Lincoln for presidential nomination in 1864, wrote over twenty autobiographical letters to a campaign biographer, where he outlined his previous lives and his personal life and that sort of thing. There was quite a bit of material on his personal life.
LAMB: Besides not marrying again, what impact did it have on his psyche, losing three wives? Can you tell?
NIVEN: Difficult to determine. I tried to find whether he had any affairs with any other women. There was a possibility by a woman named Charlotte Eastman, and she tried hard, I expect, to seduce him. This was in 1867, '66, '67, when he was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But he didn't -- he tried, but -- there's kind of an interesting anecdote in the book. She put her garter across the door and Chase came tiptoeing in his nightgown up there and pushed and felt this resistance and thought, "Well, I better not do it."
LAMB: Well, go back because I was just going to ask you to explain that in some detail. He was single?
LAMB: And she was single?
NIVEN: Well, she was a widow.
LAMB: Where were they that particular night?
NIVEN: They were in Massachusetts in the home of another mutual friend, another widow who went away for a couple of days.
LAMB: So the two of them are left there alone.
NIVEN: They were left there alone.
LAMB: I wanted to ask you how you found this out, she even left the key. The first night the door was locked?
NIVEN: And he saw the key, and he didn't do anything about this. And she upbraided him a little bit in a coquettish fashion. And then the second night he did; she left him other indications. And so he tiptoed to her door and pushed it and it was open, but she had put a garter across the door and that caused resistance, so he decided he better not do anything.
LAMB: How does anybody know that?
NIVEN: Well, because he recorded this in a letter which I have access to.
LAMB: Why would he record it, the whole story? Do you have any idea?
NIVEN: I don't know. I think in the book I indicated that he was happy that he hadn't transgressed, but on the other hand, wished he had. I don't know. That's the only indication, the only indication, that Chase might have had involvement with other women. He wouldn't get married. Charlotte Eastman, the lady in question, tried desperately to get him to marry, but he wouldn't do it.
LAMB: Would you call him a great man?
NIVEN: Yes, in many respects. Certainly a great man as far as American history in the 19th century. Important to historians, much more than to, perhaps, the casual reader. He actually had a lot to do with bringing on the Civil War, not that he wanted to bring on the Civil War, but with his Free Soil outlook and...
LAMB: What does that mean, by the way, "free soil"?
NIVEN: Well, that meant wherever Congress had power, territories, high seas, District of Columbia, they should vote against slavery. Not in the States, where it was established and protected by municipal law, local law, but everywhere else where Congress had power. And the anti-slavery forces, in the House at any rate, during the 1850s had a majority, the republicans beginning in that period and free soil democrats and that sort of thing. The Senate managed to block -- even today, as we have the situation between the Senate and the House -- the House was responding more to immediate public opinion and the Senate had a more entrenched and more conservative outlook, especially with the southern senators, the slave state senators. And they were able always to sidetrack the resolutions, the Wilmot Proviso Resolutions, which were passed in the House repeatedly. Lincoln voted for them numerous.
LAMB: What was the Wilmot Proviso?
NIVEN: That was in 1846 an appropriation bill that was brought before the House for the Mexican American War. And David Wilmot, a democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, attached a rider, which was taken out of the Northwest Ordinance written by Jefferson, where slavery was prohibited in the northwest territories. And this was hooked on to the rider, and that became the Wilmot Proviso. And this was fiercely opposed by slave state senators.
LAMB: Chief Justice, Governor of Ohio, United States Senator, Secretary of the Treasury, what point would you have liked to see him up close in all those jobs?
NIVEN: I think as Treasury Secretary or his defense of fugitive slaves. You probably noted the running heads in the book, A Study in Paradox? That was the original title, and I wish that it had continued to be. But he was a man of all sorts of paradoxes; very difficult to get a handle on him. And as far as the anti-slavery impulse which he cultivated, I think he was genuine about this, even though it also, incidentally, helped his political career.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning.
LAMB: Where was he born?
NIVEN: New Hampshire. Cornish, New Hampshire, a town that was dominated, really, by the Chase family.
LAMB: Who was his father?
NIVEN: His father was named Ithamar Chase, and he was a very prosperous farmer and a state legislator, a senator in New Hampshire, and a selectman, and that sort of thing; in other words, a leading figure in the town.
LAMB: How long did he stay there?
NIVEN: In Cornish? His father died when Chase was, I think, eight years old. By that time the family had lost a good bit of their money. By the way, they had moved to Keene, New Hampshire, where father Chase, Ithamar Chase, had invested in the glass business at the wrong time, sold his farm, and had lost all of his money. And so they went from relative affluence to near poverty. This had a tremendous effect on Chase. He had numerous uncles, all of whom had gone to Dartmouth College, but not his father; he's the only one who did not. And one uncle, of course, became the bishop of Ohio, episcopal bishop. They were all the way up in the social hierarchy of New England social hierarchy in the early 19th century.
LAMB: Is this the uncle?
NIVEN: Yes, that's the bishop.
LAMB: What's his name?
NIVEN: Philander, Philander Chase.
LAMB: Where do you get a name like Philander?
NIVEN: His father was much influenced by an 18th century book called "Young's Night Thoughts". And all these characters are in "Young's Night Thoughts", and so he named a good many of his children after these people.
LAMB: So he grew up in New Hampshire, and then his father died?
NIVEN: Well, his mother shipped him off to Ohio under Uncle Philander's tutelage when he was just a kid, I guess nine, ten, eleven, something like that. And he spent two years in Ohio with his uncle, which he hated; he hated the whole interlude. The bishop was a really tough, tyrannical sort of person, and, I think, beat Chase quite a bit, extracted a lot of labor from him, cheap labor, you know, and he owned farms and something like that. And then Uncle Philander decided he would leave. He became president of the Cincinnati College. And they were there for about a year, the Philander Chase family, including Salmon. And then the bishop decided to go East and go to England to see if he could raise money to found a college. And so the family went East, and then Salmon, who had about a year at Cincinnati College, then went to Dartmouth. The uncle went off to England, raised money, and founded Kenyon College in Ohio.
LAMB: Where did he get the name Salmon P. Chase?
NIVEN: Another uncle named Salmon, who was the leading lawyer in Portland, Maine.
LAMB: What is the P?
NIVEN: Portland. He got named after the town.
LAMB: So, how did he, then, after Dartmouth, wind up in full time out of Ohio? Was it Cincinnati he ended up living in?
NIVEN: Yes. Well, he went to Washington after he got out of Dartmouth with vague thoughts of a teaching career. And he went to Washington where another uncle was a senator from Vermont, came from a distinguished family, of course, and he managed to luck out. He ran a school, a boy's school in Washington. And while he was there, he came in touch with William Wirt, who was the attorney general in the Adams' administration. One of Wirt's sons was -- there he is -- a friend of Jefferson, Washington, an old republican from way back and an essayist, lawyer. And he was a foment of influence, in my opinion, in Chase's life.
Whereas the bishop was a harsh, unrelenting individual emphasizing work, Wirt was a genial, 18th century man, really, and a distinguished essayist, literary figure. And he had a lot of beautiful daughters, and they sort of took Chase in. And his Washington career was pleasant while the Wirts were there. And he studied with William Wirt and took his law education from Wirt and passed the bar. When the Jackson administration came in, the Wirt family moved to Baltimore and Chase then took the bar examination in the district and then went out to Cincinnati.
LAMB: The Jackson administration, meaning...
NIVEN: Andrew Jackson. Yes.
LAMB: The year?
LAMB: At the time he was approximately 21 years old?
LAMB: Moved to Cincinnati?
LAMB: A lawyer?
LAMB: Did he have a political label on him at that point?
NIVEN: No. Sort of a Whig. When the Whig party came into being in the middle 1830s, he tried his hand at being a Whig.
LAMB: What would a Whig be?
NIVEN: Well, it's pretty hard to say. The followers of Henry Clay, I suppose. The Whigs were Hamilitonian in their approach. They believed in national planning; they believed in a strong central government, as opposed to state's rights on the democratic side, high tariff, that sort of thing, protective tariff. And Chase, as a young lawyer in the business community which he had ties with, were primarily Whigs. And so he leaned towards that party. But the slavery issue came up. Chase had been anti-slavery for -- even while he was in Washington, he wrote a petition for a Quaker group, which was introduced in Congress, but he didn't take any particular side in this early period until there was a riot in Cincinnati against abolitionists and then involving James Birney, a prominent abolitionist who had come from Kentucky and was running a newspaper called the Philanthropist. And Chase took the side of Birney because he promoted law and order. And the anarchy in the streets occurred when Birney's press was broken up. And that sort of thing energized him to become more involved in the anti-slavery movement.
LAMB: Let me ask you about Andrew Jackson.
LAMB: You said it was more states' rights oriented?
LAMB: The Democrats -- today if Andrew Jackson was here, what party would he belong to?
NIVEN: That's a hard question. Well, he certainly believed in states' rights. I suppose he might be involved in the republican states' rights movement.
LAMB: If Salmon P. Chase was here today, what party would he belong to?
NIVEN: That also, because he came a Democrat later on and a Free Soil Democrat, and he embraced, virtually, all of the Democratic canons, particularly Jefferson's ideology, or persuasion, except for the slavery aspect.
LAMB: Let me interrupt to ask you, tell me if I'm right about this.
NIVEN: Go ahead.
LAMB: He was a Republican, a Free Soil Democrat, a member of the Liberty Party?
NIVEN: Well, we should start the other way around.
LAMB: A Whig; in other words, he was...
NIVEN: He was all over the place.
LAMB: Did those parties back there mean anything?
NIVEN: Well, the Liberty Party was not much of a party. It began in the East, abolitionist label, and they were what was called a one-idea party; in other words, they were anti-slavery. That was all they were interested in. And they wouldn't organize themselves into a political party that would go into the polls under the liberty rubric. Chase saw that this would never get anywhere with that, and he was very realistic. In Ohio he managed to take the Liberty Party and make it a third party. And in close elections between the Democrats and the Whigs, the Liberty Party was able to hold the balance of power. And that's how he got in the United States Senate the first time, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: Elected by the state legislators?
NIVEN: Yes, with a deal of the Democrats. And that caused a lot of trouble for him later on in life. The Whigs never forgot in Ohio about his movement from being a moralistic, presumably moralistic Liberty Party, Free Soil man and then dealing with the Democratic bosses in Ohio.
LAMB: How did you get into the business of writing biographies in the first place?
LAMB: Just writing.
NIVEN: Yeah. My first biography was a biography of Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy which is in print now. LSU Press has it in paperback. It was done by Oxford, also initially.
LAMB: As a matter of fact you've got a picture of him.
NIVEN: That's Gideon, yes, the great diarist. Chase, by the way, was a diarist also of the Lincoln Administration and much valuable stuff on the emancipation discussions, Emancipation Proclamation, and that sort of thing.
LAMB: A diarist by choice or by assignment?
NIVEN: No, by choice. I mean, off and on all through his life he'd kept a diary. And, as a matter of fact, I'm the editor of the Chase Papers at Claremont, and we brought out an edition of his diary from the 1820s all the way up through his death.
LAMB: Salmon P. Chase's diaries?
NIVEN: Yes. There are two volumes out now, and the third volume is in press. And this is correspondence after the diary. And Welles is a prime source for what went on in the discussions in the Lincoln cabinet during the Civil War, and Chase, too. But I was interested in Welles and wrote a biography of him, and then that led me to Chase, though, rather curcuitously. In between I did one on Van Buren, also for Oxford.
LAMB: Oxford books?
NIVEN: Yes. And this was the third biography I've done with Oxford.
LAMB: Now, you mentioned Claremont. Where is that?
NIVEN: It's in California, about 35 miles -- Southern California, about 35 miles due east of Los Angeles.
LAMB: And you teach there?
NIVEN: I did; I'm retired now, emeritus.
LAMB: How long were you there?
NIVEN: Thirty years; a long time.
LAMB: What is Claremont?
NIVEN: These are six independent, interdependent colleges Pomona, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College , which is engineering, Claremont-McKenna College, Pitzer College, and then the graduate school; and that's where I was affiliated was the graduate school, which is also semi-independent, too, though it is the graduate school of the Claremont Colleges.
LAMB: How did you get there?
NIVEN: Well, I was in the business world for five or six years, doing public relations, advertising. And one of my chores was to go out to California to the various divisions of this big corporation. And when I went to Pamona to get information for annual reports and other things, I met and worked with the assistant to the head of that particular division. And he had formerly been an assistant to the president of the Pamona college, and so he had a wide acquaintance among the faculty there, and he introduced me to them. And it was a rather long courtship, I think a couple of years, when I'd come around. And then in 1960 I went out there.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
NIVEN: In Claremont.
LAMB: Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Cabinet.
LAMB: But you said before that he had something to do with leading us into the Civil War.
LAMB: Explain that.
NIVEN: Well, he was a Free Soil senator in 1850. He was elected in 1849, and then in 1854 Steven A. Douglas, in an effort, to solve, as he thought, the agitation against slavery, came up with -- well, he didn't come up with it, but he borrowed the popular sovereignty idea where the inhabitants of a given of territory would decide for themselves whether that territory went free or slave. Douglas was a nationalist and and moderate, but, in this case, he followed the pressure from the Southern senators, the slave state senators. And the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
The Missouri Compromise had been developed in 1819, 1820, where a line, a geographic line, was drawn between slavery and freedom in the territories. And Missouri came in as a slave state, but the all states north of the line, 36 degrees in 30 minutes, were to be free. Douglas, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when they were considering the organic act for the admission of Kansas and Nebraska as territories, under Southern pressure, made an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise. And Chase and some of his colleagues wrote what they call "The Appeal to Independent Democrats," a fiery document accusing Douglas of all sorts of chicanery and a slave state conspiracy and so forth.
This was a big sensation, and, of course, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, but Kansas was a terrible problem: First slave and then free, John Brown running around there and all that sort of thing. And so it made big headlines in the papers and became a very important energizing force for the anti-slavery movement in the North. So the document that he wrote was every bit as important as the Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska act in developing the cleavage between the sections.
LAMB: How did he get to be a member of the Lincoln Cabinet?
NIVEN: Well, he and Seward were the most important individuals in the new Republican Party -- coalition, I should say.
LAMB: And by the way, we've got a fellow here, Seward. Who was he?
NIVEN: He was a Whig, governor of New York, U.S. senator from New York, anti-slavery, and very prominent individual. He almost beat Lincoln. He was the favored nominee in the 1860 convention, but he had been a big shot in politics too long and had too many enemies. And also he was considered a bit too radical, and so he didn't make it. But Lincoln took all of his competitors, both former Democrats and former Whigs, to form his coalition government. And he offered the State Department to Seward, and he offered the Treasury Department to Chase. And he tried to make a balance between geography, geographical areas and prior political involvement. That's Stanton there you're pointing to. He succeeded Simon Cameron as Secretary of War during the Civil War. A very energetic, very abrasive, aggressive and very able secretary of war, and lawyer and that sort of thing.
LAMB: Did Salmon P. Chase get along with Abraham Lincoln?
NIVEN: At first, yes. But after a while his insidious ambition of his and efforts to undercut Lincoln caused an estrangement. Lincoln put up with him until 1864; then over a patronage dispute, he finally gave in at the wrong time time and accepted Chase's resignation.
LAMB: What was the patronage dispute about?
NIVEN: It was on the New York -- well, the Customs House was involved, it was the assistant treasurer, so-called in New York, who was the Treasury Department's primary agent in collecting excises -- no, not collecting excises, but in dealing with the money market and the bankers and that sort of thing.
LAMB: What did Justice Chase think of Abraham Lincoln, personally?
NIVEN: Ambivalent. He, surely, recognized Lincoln's humane qualities, his generosity, and, eventually, he finally accepted his political astuteness. But, on the other hand, Chase was one of these people who was a tidy administrator and also, of course, he had this tremendous drive to run things. And, in that respect, where, in the beginning, Lincoln did consult with Chase on military and high policy matters, as the war developed, Lincoln leaned on Chase less and less, and this caused Chase all sorts of irritations and criticisms which he spread around among his friends in the Congress.
LAMB: And here's a photo of his daughters, Nettie and Kate.
LAMB: And you mentioned early in the program that Kate was a socialite.
NIVEN: Oh, yes, lovely young woman.
LAMB: Which one is she in this picture?
NIVEN: She's this one right here, the tall one.
LAMB: The tall one?
NIVEN: The tall one, yes. Chase lavished his attention on both daughters, but particularly on Kate. Brought her up to speak French and to be involved in politics and all that sort of thing. She was a very intelligent, self-indulgent also, person, but the love of Chase's life. And she reciprocated; her father was everything to her.
LAMB: How did he live in this town?
NIVEN: In Washington?
NIVEN: With great style, yes.
LAMB: Do you know what he was making back then when he was Secretary of the Treasury?
NIVEN: Not much money. He was never a rich man, though people who were involved with the Treasury Department like Jay Cooke, became millionaires; never Chase. However, he did live in great style and entertained, of course, a lot, and lots of servants and that sort of thing. And, yet, at the same time, I think another one of the paradoxes, he had great faith in the common man and particularly great faith in the African Americans.
LAMB: Where did that come from? Because, one of the things that you read in your book constantly, page after page, that he was anti-slavery.
NIVEN: Oh, yes. And that was genuine, I think, in that respect.
LAMB: Born in New Hampshire.
LAMB: Moved to Ohio, spent time here. But where did he get the anti-slavery?
NIVEN: Well, it's hard to say, in a way. I think probably William Wirt was the influence there, one of the influences. Wirt was a Southerner, but he was of the older generation, the Jefferson generation. And he was concerned about the plight of the African Americans and also concerned about slavery itself. And I think that Chase absorbed some of that. His uncle, the bishop, was also anti-slavery, too. And so he came from a general background, New England background melded with this courtly Virginia person of an older generation, and that tended to make him an anti-slavery person. He was very conservative at first; he believed in colonization; he was like Henry Clay. That was his early period. But then, as riots and other things developed and as he sensed a reform movement coming -- he was pretty good on that -- became a progressive individual. He became more and more anti-slavery, dropped the colonization business and began to think in terms of free soil as a political constitutional alternative.
LAMB: Let's go back over the basics. He died when he was 65.
LAMB: Was he ever elected to anything?
NIVEN: Yes. First Cincinnati city counsel.
LAMB: But that was by the people?
NIVEN: Yes. Then the legislature; he was elected senator in 1849 on the Free Soil ticket.
LAMB: How long was he a U.S. senator?
NIVEN: A six-year term.
LAMB: Just a six-year term?
NIVEN: Then he ran for governor. You had to be elected by the people there and he campaigned and won the election.
LAMB: How long was he governor of Ohio?
NIVEN: Two terms, four years.
LAMB: A total of four years?
NIVEN: Yes. And then reelected as U.S. senator in 1860.
LAMB: By the legislature?
NIVEN: Yes. But the two terms of governor, he was elected by the people.
LAMB: And then he was Secretary of the Treasury for how long?
NIVEN: 1861 to the end of June 1864.
LAMB: How did he become Chief Justice of the United States?
NIVEN: Well, when Lincoln accepted his resignation, which upset Chase, he didn't think it was going to be accepted, then Chase, yearned for more public duty and more public exposure. And he'd always thought about the Supreme Court as a possible place anyway, and so he lobbied for himself, and he had a lot of what we call radical, or progressive, spokesman like Charles Sumner, who is just above that picture you've got of the Supreme Court.
LAMB: Who was Charles Sumner?
NIVEN: He was a senator from Massachusetts, a violently anti-slavery individual and sort of the conscience of the senate, I suppose. And Lincoln, who was under great pressure at the time, decided he had to have a progressive, or radical, person. And Chase, he had high respect for Chase's abilities, rather lower respect for his deviousness and his intriguing qualities. And so finally he decided to listen to the pressure, or respond to the pressure, and so he appointed Chase.
LAMB: Did he have any trouble getting approved by the U.S.. Senate?
NIVEN: No, the Senate was predominantly republican, anyway.
LAMB: How long was he Chief Justice?
NIVEN: I'm not sure when he was, either December of 1864 or January of 1865 until his death in 1873, May.
LAMB: And Abraham Lincoln was shot in April of 1865?
NIVEN: That's right.
LAMB: Andrew Johnson becomes president?
NIVEN: That's right.
LAMB: And this man, Salmon P. Chase, is involved in the impeachment trial?
NIVEN: That's right; he's the presiding officer, as the Constitution provides.
LAMB: Explain, first of all, why was Andrew Johnson impeached by the House?
NIVEN: Well, that's another difficult question. I think predominantly because Johnson was considered to be a stumbling block for reconstruction. He had been a democratic, he was a war democratic, but he was a very conservative, in fact, a Jacksonian approach to politics. And this didn't set well in the period after the war when they were trying to determine what kind of peace terms for the South. And Johnson wanted lenient ones and the Congress, spurred on by the radicals, or the progressives, wanted much more stringent ones, and so they passed a reconstruction act. All of these acts Freedmans' Bureau Act, Civil Rights Act, 14th Amendment, all these were bitterly opposed by Johnson. And so they really had it up to here on Andrew Johnson.
LAMB: Who had had it up to here?
NIVEN: Well, the Congress, the leading spokesman in Congress, in the House particularly. The republicans won a big election in 1866, and they took that as a mandate to push through their reconstruction ideas.
LAMB: Back in 1866 and those years, had the republican and democratic labels, had they begun to mean something?
NIVEN: Yes. In the 1864 election it was the union, they called it the republican label, was transmuted into the union because they brought in some more democrats, including Andrew Johnson. He was elected with Lincoln as Vice President, of course. And then by 1866-'67, the republican coalition dropped the union label, and then it became just the republicans and democrats.
LAMB: So Andrew Johnson...
NIVEN: Well, he was what you would call a union...
LAMB: But he's impeached.
LAMB: For specifically what...
NIVEN: Congress had passed a law called the Tenure of Office Act, which, in effect, said that the president could not fire any of his cabinet members or any other federal officers without the consent of the Senate. The reverse, you know, the Senate has to confirm a presidential appointment, and this is the reverse' of that, and there's some plausibility to their argument. This was an effort to keep Johnson from filling all the federal offices with his own spokesmen.
At that point Stanton, who was his Secretary of War, had been Lincoln's Secretary of War and was openly opposed to Johnson's policies, and Johnson wanted to get rid of him, and he wanted to get rid of some of the generals who were involved in various parts of the South under the Reconstruction Acts. And so Johnson decided deliberately to break the law, the Tenure of Office Act, which he regarded as unconstitutional, obviously it was unconstitutional. And that was the grounds for the House bringing charges against him, for willfully disobeying the law.
LAMB: Who was he going to fire?
LAMB: For what reason?
NIVEN: Because Stanton was an open enemy now of the Administration and the Administration's policies.
LAMB: At some point I remember you writing that Johnson had not been the man to appoint him.
NIVEN: Lincoln appointed him, and then that was one of the problems of the Tenure of Office Act. The argument was made by Johnson's attorneys -- I mean, after all, the Tenure of Office Act, only applies to appointments made by the president and from there on. Now, Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln and, therefore, Johnson did not have responsibility for him.
LAMB: The House impeaches, and the senate convicts or acquits. What was the vote; do you remember?
NIVEN: One vote.
LAMB: No, I mean in the House.
NIVEN: Oh, rather overwhelming.
LAMB: So the House said "throw him out."
NIVEN: Sure, and they had their impeachment managers Ben Butler and Thaddeus Stevens, people like that.
LAMB: Eleven counts?
LAMB: Eleven count indictment, he comes over to the senate. ..
NIVEN: That's right.
LAMB: What was the question at that point about what role the Chief Justice meaning Salmon P. Chase, would play in the actual trial?
NIVEN: Well, Chase, being Chase, decided to expand his role. I mean, the Constitution says the Chief Justice shall preside at any trial of the president. And Chase then raised the point with the Senate Committee on Rules, as Chief Justice, he wanted, not only be presiding officer, but to be like the vice president, have a vote, and a tie, and also to rule on the competency of witnesses. In other words, as Chase said, he wanted to make it as judicial a trial as possible, and not a legislative or political trial.
LAMB: What happened?
NIVEN: Well, he managed to get his way. And on roll calls and things like that, there were efforts to deprive him of this, but they didn't succeed. And so as Chief Justice and presiding officer, I think we owe a lot to Chase for making sure that Johnson was not found guilty. It would have wrecked our system of government.
LAMB: But it was only one vote.
NIVEN: One vote. That's all right; that was enough.
LAMB: And he needed two-thirds?
NIVEN: Well, one vote over the, yeah.
LAMB: I don't remember how many senators were that year.
NIVEN: Well, I don't either. I mean, not offhand. But Johnson was acquitted by one vote. And they brought it up again a couple of weeks later and the same thing happened. And then finally the Senate gave in, and Johnson completed his term. He only had about seven or eight months to go anyway.
LAMB: What kind of a person would Salmon P. Chase be like today in our system. What would he think of him he if we watched him on television?
NIVEN: Very impressive, magisterial, dignified.
LAMB: This is a picture near death.
NIVEN: Yes, well he lost all of his weight. And this was after he had strokes and heart attacks and things like that.
LAMB: And in the end what were his last years like?
NIVEN: Well, there was a lot of family discord. Kate, his beloved daughter, had married this dissipated scion of a textile fortune, William Sprague. And Chase continually tried to patch up their marriage, but was unsuccessful. And I think at the end he realized that he had sacrificed his daughter to this kind of materialistic existence.
LAMB: Was Sprague involved in politics?
NIVEN: Yes, a senator from Rhode Island, had been governor of Rhode Island, and, as a matter of fact, voted against Johnson in the impeachment trial, even though he and Chase lived together in their mansion in Washington.
LAMB: So, Salmon P. Chase, he's 63, 64 years old, near the end, and he dies when he's 65. He's living in Washington, Chief Justice of the United States, he's got the one daughter who he's close to and her first husband is a United States senator.
LAMB: When does he begin to get sick?
NIVEN: Oh, well, I guess he began to get sick in, I think, 1868 or '69 he had a heart attack and recovered from that.
LAMB: You have him at one point, though, having such a bad stroke that he's limping.
NIVEN: That was a little bit later, I think 1969 or maybe '70 he then had a bad stroke, and he recovered but was put on a diet and all that sort of thing. And tried to resume his regimen in the Supreme Court, but even he began to realize that his health was shattered.
LAMB: There have been, I think, 16 Chief Justices in history?
LAMB: Where would he go down on that list? Would he be up on the top?
NIVEN: I think that the constitutional scholars would not put him that high. I tend to think that he ought to be higher than they consider, because of the problems that he faced and the reconstruction of the nation, not just the legal and constitutional problems, Civil Rights problems, but also the business problems as the two sections had to come together again. And he made a lot of important decisions on his circuit as a the Chief Justice. All the justices had circuits; they didn't have the circuit court at that point. A little later on they did. And in that guise Chase played a very important role in reestablishing business connections and that sort of thing.
LAMB: But you talk about him riding the circuit; in other words, as the Supreme Court Chief Justice he'd be out around the country, around the circuit.
LAMB: What would it be like here? Were there paved roads and telephones?
NIVEN: No, no, no, no, no, arduous duty, very arduous.
LAMB: How would he get around?
NIVEN: Well, of course, there were railroads, and he went on railroads. He did a lot of work in Virginia and North Carolina and the circuit in Richmond, for example. Well, even though Richmond had been badly damaged during the war, it was being rebuilt. And so he was able to get to Richmond fairly easily from Washington by railroad. And in North Carolina he also was on the circuit there and, again, railroad transport.
LAMB: How would he go down in history as Secretary of the Treasury?
NIVEN: I think one of the great ones. He'd founded the national banking system which, for the time, put the United States on a central banking system. He managed to fund the three- or four billion dollars that it cost him in 1860 terms, which would be an enormous amount today, without too excessive inflation and without controls. And he was a successful Secretary of the Treasury, unprecedented demands on the Treasury Department.
LAMB: How would he go down in history of the United States Senate?
NIVEN: As an important senator, particularly -- he really only served one term in the senate. And I mentioned the appeal to the independent democrats which really energized the anti-slavery feeling in the North and was a body blow to Steven A. Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
LAMB: Now, in the back you list all your sources, or, I assume, all your sources.
LAMB: And it's just all over country.
LAMB: There's a huge list -- and I'll show the audience what it looks like if those of you will go to the back of this -- You show the LOC, which is the ...
NIVEN: Library of Congress.
LAMB: Library of Congress. And you can see over there the list of all the different papers.
LAMB: And the National Archives. How much time did you spend in the national Library of Congress?
NIVEN: Well, we had the Chase project, you see, going at Claremont, and a lot of this material was uncovered by my editors on that project. I spend some time, myself, though, in the national archives, quite a bit of time.
LAMB: Why would Claremont choose the Chase Papers project?
NIVEN: Well, because I was interested in it, I suppose. I'm the one who decided I wanted to do a biography of Chase, and so I decided the best way to do it would be to try and get some support for the research end of it. And I didn't feel at my age I wanted to go traveling around the country and live in third-rate motels; this is something for a younger person. And so I managed to get some sponsorship.
LAMB: From what kind of organizations?
NIVEN: From the NEH and the National Archives.
LAMB: National Endowment of the Humanities.
NIVEN: Yes, right, which we still have. We still have support from them.
LAMB: Who was in charge when you got the support?
NIVEN: Of the...
LAMB: NEH; do you remember?
NIVEN: Yes, Lynne Cheney. She was the director of the NEH, and the Bush administration. The Bush administration was much more favorable to -- I found it, at any rate -- to projects like this than the Reagan administration had been. And now the Clinton administration, I'm not sure about if it's more of a continuation.
LAMB: How much money was involved from the NEH?
NIVEN: Oh, I think really modest grants. They funded the salary of one person, $50- or $60,000 a year, something like that.
LAMB: And that money goes to Claremont?
NIVEN: Yes, it does. It goes through the graduate school and then supports the editorial project.
LAMB: Would you say without that money there wouldn't be a Salmon P. Chase project?
NIVEN: A project, no there wouldn't be, I don't think. You see, we might have been able to raise private funds, and indeed, we did raise some private funds, but not very much. But this, generally, at our place, at any rate, ran counter to the development policies of the graduate school. They didn't want people like me going out and trying to raise $5- or $10,000 when they were after much bigger sums, and you can understand that. So we did try a couple of times to raise money and we did raise a little bit, but we've supported primarily by the National Historical Records Commission from the Archives and by the NEH.
LAMB: Oxford published this book.
LAMB: How does that work?
NIVEN: Well, I had a contract. I wrote a proposal, sent it in to Oxford, and they accepted it, and I had a contract to do it. And, so, that's how it came about. I don't have an agent; I just did it directly with the press.
LAMB: What do they expect in the way of sales for a book like this?
NIVEN: Well, I was told that they printed 10,000 copies, which astounded me, but I suppose they must have some kind of projection for that many copies. I can't imagine selling that many copies, but maybe they will.
LAMB: Where do you see this to be of the best use?
NIVEN: I think, first of all, Civil War buffs would be interested or those who are interested in the anti-slavery politics and the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century, Civil Rights, that sort of thing; those who are interested in constitutional history, the Supreme Court. So there are various, discrete constituencies that would be interested in this book. There's quite of bit of social history, 19th century social history in there, western history in Cincinnati i the 1820s and '30s and '40s, and that sort of thing.
LAMB: You dedicated this book to the memory of your sister, [Mary Ann] Niven. Who was she?
NIVEN: My sister, who died four or five years ago, and I was devoted to her. She was unmarried, lived in New York, and we lived out in California. And the only family she had was my family, and it was quite a blow when she died.
LAMB: What age was she?
NIVEN: Sixty four.
LAMB: She was a year younger than Salmon P. Chase?
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
LAMB: What part?
NIVEN: In Westminster, a little village between Mystic and Noank, I suppose, on the Long Island Sound, the mouth of the Mystic River.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
NIVEN: University of Connecticut and Columbia.
LAMB: What did you study?
LAMB: Do you credit anybody in the past?
NIVEN: Allan Nevins was my mentor at Columbia, and I tried to emulate, in a way, his great narrative style, and that sort of thing.
LAMB: Who was he?
NIVEN: Allan Nevins?
NIVEN: Well, he was a professor of Columbia for many years. He had been a newspaperman before that. He'd never had a Ph.D. He had a master's degree only from the University of Illinois, I think. He twice won the Pulitzer price for biography. And his "Ordeal of The Union" series was six or seven, maybe eight volumes; it's just a fantastic history of the coming of the Civil War and the Civil War itself. And it's the literary, the legal, the Constitutional, the social, political, economic... A great historian of the grand tradition, in my opinion.
LAMB: Now, you taught for 30 years at Claremont?
LAMB: Graduate school?
LAMB: Do you hope somebody some day will say, John Niven...
NIVEN: No, certainly not. I wouldn't possibly think that anybody would be interested -- I'm no Allan Nevins, I'll tell you that. His approach and scope of history, his understanding of historical touches far surpasses anything I have.
LAMB: Of all the people in your book that you write of, from Stanton to Seward, who would you like to meet?
NIVEN: All of them, I suppose. I think Seward would have really amused me. He amused Lincoln. Well, as a cabinet member, Seward, well, he was closest to Lincoln. And there he is; he was a funny little man. Henry Adams said if you put some orange paint on his nose, he would look just like a parrot,
LAMB: Who else?
NIVEN: I don't think I would particularly -- who else? Well, not Chase, I don't think; he would have probably been too chilly and dignified. I suspect Stanton would have been aggressive and abrasive. Montgomery Blair is a -- I'm not so sure any of the other cabinet members would have been interested in me. I think Seward would, and I think you would like him, too. He was a great raconteur, smoked cigars all the time, told stories, exaggerated. He had a bad side to him, too. He was selfish and egotistical and that sort of thing, but he was an amusing, entertaining person and a great politician.
LAMB: What do you think Kate Chase would be like in today's society?
NIVEN: Well, I suppose he'd be a impressive grande dame. I would think she would have fit in very well, very materialistic, very self-indulgent, very assured person. She could move in all circles of society. As I said, she spoke French fluently, and she'd been well-educated, polished by her father by expensive boarding schools.
LAMB: Where did you say this cover shot come from?
NIVEN: I think it comes from the Supreme Court. I think that's a Supreme Court portrait of Chase.
LAMB: "Salmon P. Chase: A Biography". Our guest, John Niven. Thank you for joining us.
NIVEN: Thank you very much.
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