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Salmon P. Chase

The Chief Justice sends “real regret that I found myself obliged to remain in Wash[ington],” perhaps because of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson

Salmon Portland Chase1808–1873.  Chief Justice of the United States, 1864–1873; Secretary of the Treasury, 1861–1864.  Autograph letter signed, S P Chase, as Chief Justice, one page, 5¼” x 8⅛”, with integral leaf, on plain stationery, Washington, [D.C.], June 24, 1868. 

The Chief Justice writes to Professor Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, to explain why he could not appear at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, now Princeton University, and to ask him to pass along his regrets to the President of the College, Dr. John Maclean Jr.  Chase writes, in full:  “It was with real regret that I found myself obliged to remain in Wash[ington] when I should have found so much more gratification in Princeton.  Thank Dr. Maclean for his intended hospitality and assure him of my truest respect and esteem.  /  Sincerely your friend  / S P Chase

Chase may refer here to the need to stay in Washington in order to preside over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson—the first time in American history that a President had been impeached and that a Chief Justice had to conduct a trial of the President in the Senate.  The trial began March 5, 1868, and lasted two months and three weeks, until it was adjourned on May 26, 1868.  Since Maclean would already have known that Chase had to forgo appearing in Princeton, this letter, written less than a month after the end of the trial, was not unreasonably late, particularly if Chase was catching up.  We found no explanation in the Chase Papers online in the Library of Congress, but other parts of Chase’s papers are housed elsewhere and are not available online. 

Chase, Henry, and Maclean were colleagues at the Smithsonian as well as friends.  Henry and Maclean were also colleagues at Princeton.  Henry, a physicist at the College, served 32 years as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1846 to 1878.  Chase was unanimously elected as the Fourth Chancellor of the Smithsonian and held that position nine years, from 1864 to 1873.  Maclean and Chase were also both Regents of the Smithsonian, and Maclean served on its Executive Committee.

This is a very nice example of Chase’s difficult hand.  He has penned and signed the letter in dark black steel nib pen.  The letter has flattened bisecting horizontal and vertical folds that affect the text but not Chase’s beautiful signature. There is a blob of ink, surely from Chase’s pen, at the beginning of the “W” in “Washington” in the dateline.  A docket number is written in black ink in another hand in the blank area at the upper left, the Smithsonian Institution’s blue oval receipt stamp at the top touches the ink blob and the very top of the middle leg of the “W,” and there is a small stain in the blank lower margin.  On the back of the integral leaf, there are scattered small ink stains and three glue stains that suggest that the letter was previously mounted in an album.  There is also an old dealer pencil notation in the upper left corner of the back of the integral leaf.  Overall, the letter is in fine condition. 


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