Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Impeachment of Old Bacon Face—Justice Samuel Chase

Justice Samuel Chase in his Supreme Court Robe.

Samuel Chase was an obstreperous, intemperate loudmouth with a zest for political controversy, mixed with evidently impious personal behavior, and an occasional streak of hand-in-the-till opportunism.  He also had all the impeccable credentials of an honest-to-God Founding Father--pre-Revolutionary Patriot, Delegate to the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and as a George Washington appointee to the Supreme Court.  He also became the first and only sitting Supreme Court Justice to be impeached by the House of Representatives.  His trial before the Senate began on November 30, 1804.
Chase was born the only child of an Anglican Priest near Princess Anne, Maryland on April 17, 1744.  He was educated by his father, the Reverend Thomas Chase, from his well-stocked library.  At age 18 he left home to read law with Annapolis attorney  John Hall.  He was admitted to the Bar in 1761 when he was only 20.  Despite his youth he earned the nick-name Old Bacon Face from the other practitioners in the colonial capital.  No explanation for this unusual moniker can be found—or whether it evidenced fond affection or scorn.  Evidently he inspired both.
In May 1762 Chase married Ann Baldwin with whom he sired three sons and four daughters before Ann died in 1776.  But the very same year of his nuptials Chase was expelled from the prestigious  Forensic Club, an Annapolis debating society, for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior. 
Whatever the scandal in 1762, it did not prevent Chase from being elected to the Maryland General Assembly in 1764 or from being continuously re-elected for terms lasting the next 20 years. 
As tensions between England and her colonies rose over issues of taxation, Chase became a vocal, and intemperate leader of opposition to loyalist members of the Maryland political establishment.  After he published a scathing letter naming prominent men, they replied in ab article in the Maryland Gazette of June 19, 1766 accusing him of being, “a busy, reckless incendiary, a ringleader of mobs, a foul-mouthed and inflaming son of discord and faction, a common disturber of the public tranquility.”  Chase quickly replied in kind accusing the men of “vanity...pride and arrogance… [brought to power by] proprietary influence, court favour, and the wealth and influence of the tools and favourites who infest this city.”
As Chase railed against the Stamp Act and its loyalist apologists as a member of the legislature in Annapolis, he co-founded Anne Arundel County Sons of Liberty.  He was becoming noted as a firebrand in a relatively conservative colony not generally regarded as a hotbed of simmering rebellion like Massachusetts, neighboring Virginia, or the urban center of Philadelphia.
Quite naturally as a leading Patriot and member of the Legislature, Chase served in the Annapolis Convention from 1774 to 1776.  He was elected by the Convention as a delegate to the First Continental Congress and to the Second in 1776.  He was an enthusiastic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Chase remained in Congress until 1778 when he was accused of  leading involvement in a notorious attempt to corner the flour market, based on his inside information about supply and purchase plans for the Continental Army, privileged information he gathered as a member of Congress.  He was humiliated and his reputation tarnished.
Through the rest of the Revolution, he practiced law and amassed, as much as was possible in those turbulent times, a pleasant fortune.  By the time the war ended memories of his disgrace had faded while his reputation as a shrewd lawyer had risen.  He was appointed in 1784 by the Maryland government to be its agent in dealing with issues of its ownership of stock in the Bank of England.  It was a thorny issue caught up in issues of debt and reparations for the losses of Tories during the war.  In England, Chase did what he could, but also found time to woo the much younger Hannah Kilty, daughter of Berkshire physician.  The couple married that year and he brought her home to Maryland where she gave him two more daughters.
On his return to Maryland, Chase relocated to Baltimore,  an increasingly busy port and a commercial center that made the inland state capital seem like a rustic backwater.  He built a fine house there for his family in 1786 and two years later became Chief Justice of the District Criminal Court for Baltimore.  Retaining that position, he was also made Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court in 1791.
Prosperity and age had modified Chase’s political position, if not his sharp tongue or partisan fervor.  He had been an ardent Anti-federalist during the debates over the adoption of the Constitution.  But he shifted toward the Federalists, especially after panics about domestic unrest like the Whiskey Rebellion and distrust of the French Revolution, scared the daylights out of the propertied elite, a class of which he was now a privileged and honored member.
By 1796 Chase was such a reliable Federalist stalwart the George Washington, probably on advice from Alexander Hamilton, appointed him an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
Chase became an object of controversy after the ascension of John Adams to the Presidency and the imposition of the Alien and Sedition Acts during a period of rising tensions with France and support for the revolution there from the rising Democratic-Republican Clubs.  It was the first great legal attack on civil liberties in American history, and Chase was an outspoken supporter of the suppression.  In April 1800, Chase presiding  as Circuit Court judge, as was then the practice for Supreme Court Justices, strongly attacked Thomas Cooper who had been indicted under Acts and was on trial before him. He seemed to take on the air of a prosecutor rather than a judge in the case.

Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke was only 31 years old when he led the prosecution of Justice Chase at the urging of his distant kinsman, Thomas Jefferson.
After Jefferson won a landslide victory in what has been called the Revolution of 1800, the outgoing Federalists hastily passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which created new layers of lower Federal courts which Adams spent his last hours feverishly filling with Federalists guaranteed lifetime appointments.  Jefferson’s Republican supporters in the new Congress worked quickly to repeal the Act and thus terminate the appointment of the notorious midnight judges. 
In May 1803, Chase denounced the repeal in a charge to a Federal grand jury in Baltimore, saying that it would “take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy.”
The inflammatory and inappropriate statement incensed Jefferson, who was finding himself beset by the Federalist judiciary.  In exasperation, the president penned a note  to his ally Congressman Joseph Hopper Nicholson of Maryland asking, “Ought the seditious and official attack [by Chase] on the principles of our Constitution . . .to go unpunished?”  This quiet whisper was akin to Henry VIII muttering “will no one rid me of this turbulent Priest?” about Thomas à Becket.
Jefferson’s old friend and kinsman Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke got the message loud and clear an initiated action against Chase in the House of Representatives.  The heavily Democratic Republican House, with many new members including those not drawn from the traditional caste of the political elite, wasted no time in passing eight Articles of Impeachment citing the justice’s conduct in presiding at two trials and for, “intemperate and inflammatory … peculiarly indecent and unbecoming … highly unwarrantable … highly indecent” remarks while charging the Baltimore grand jury. 
In the case of John Fries, a Revolutionary War officer and hero who had been a leader among the Germans in the Whiskey Rebellion, Chase presided over his second trial which resulted in a sentence of death by hanging.  Chase had been typically immoderate on the bench and in the view of Republicans skewed the verdict and sentence.  Although Fries was ultimately spared and pardoned by John Adams, the case still stirred emotions. 
Chase was also cited for procedural errors and prejudice in the case of radical journalist James T. Callender who was prosecuted under the Sedition Act, fine $200 and served longer in jail than any other defendant charged under its provisions.
The Senate had also fallen into the hands of the Democratic Republican, but by a narrower margin.  Moreover the Senators, who were elected by the state legislatures, were almost to a man members of the traditional governing classes regardless of party affiliation.  A conviction in the upper chamber was far from a sure thing.
The Senate took up the case at the end of November but promptly recessed until the new year.  Oral presentation of evidence and arguments did not begin until they reconvened  early in 1805.  Vice President Aaron Burr presided, reportedly with ability as a lawyer and with admirable impartiality.  Randolph, a noted trial lawyer, presented the case for the House.  Chase’s  defense team naturally argued that the impeachment was politically motivated.  In testimony he personally argued his actions had adhered to precedent, dutifully restrained advocates from improper statements of law, and were motivated by considerations of judicial efficiency.

The Colombian Sentinel of Boston reported on the Senate vote in Chase's impeachment rial and featured a chart on how every senator voted on every article.

On March 1 the Senate voted—by large margins on most counts—to acquit Chase on all counts.  Even some Republican Senators who detested him voted for acquittal fearing a bad precedent in removing a justice because of the quality of his work, judicial temperament, or lack of good judgment.   In the future no other Supreme Court justice would be impeached.  Lower court judges would rarely be impeached and tried only for committing actual crimes.
The usually politically astute Jefferson had gambled and lost big time.  The result of his attempt to put a leash on Federalist judges ended up strengthening their position.  Chase would remain a thorn in the President’s side and following the lead of Chief Justice John Marshall would thwart some of his ambitions.
Chase stayed on the bench until he died of a heart attack in Washington on June 19, 1811 at the age of 70.
On the other hand, after Chase justices were more temperate and circumscribed in their comments and rulings and even when acting in highly partisan ways learned to justify their action and couch their opinions in the language of lofty disinterest.
From time to time the parties descended from the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans have both yearned to impeach partisan judges from the other side.  Think of the campaign to impeach Earl Warren which was launched by the John Birch Society and embraced by many conservative Republicans. 
On the other hand many current liberal Democrats clamor for the impeachment of Justice Clarence Thomas for conflict of interest in ruling on health care cases while his wife is employed as a high powered lobbyist for the health care industry and of Justice Antonin Scalia for being a jerk, slavishly partisan, and inconsistent in his rulings depending on whose ox has been gored in the case in front of him.  Thomas could conceivably be impeached if it were found that he materially benefited from ruling he made in cases where his wife was involved with a party before him.  It would be tough to do, but it is imaginable.  Scalia is more directly analogous to old Bacon Face and thus can thank his distant predecessor for covering his ass.


  1. This man is my great great etc grandfather, very interesting with personality qualities and other. Thank you.

    1. Samuel Chase was my husband's 6th cousin 5x removed. Lol
      He is not shy about getting into a political argument. Must be hereditary 😆
      Deb Noyes