Samuel Chase, Only U. S. Supreme Court Judge to Face Impeachment Charges and Signer of the Declaration of Independence


Samuel Chase. Oil on wood, 1811, by John Wesley Jarvis. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. articles/02/02-00055.html

Samuel Chase was born in Somerset County, Maryland, 11 April 1741. His father Thomas Chase graduated from both Eton and Cambridge. At Eton, he earned honors in both Latin and Hebrew; later, at Cambridge, he studied medicine and earned a Bachelor of Physics degree. He returned to Eton and taught Latin and Hebrew. Apparently tiring of the academic life, he took passage to the West Indies island of St. Thomas to practice medicine. The sparse life on a small island didn’t agree, so he returned to England where he read for the Anglican priesthood. He was ordained in February 1739. Shortly thereafter he emigrated to Somerset County, Maryland, and became Rector of the Somerset Parish. (The Society for the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of IndependenceThomas and Matilda Walker were married in 1740, and they moved in with her parents, as Thomas’ stipend as a rector could not maintain a separate household. “On 11 April 1741, the Reverend Chase lost his wife and gained a son. Matilda Chase died in childbirth, her husband’s medical training being of no avail.

In February 1744, Thomas Chase was made rector of St. Paul’s Parish, which included Baltimore Town. He lived beyond his meager means and was often in financial difficulty. Samuel learned this dissipation from his father. Thomas Chase tutored Samuel and his grand-nephew Jeremiah Townley Chase in Latin, Greek, literature and history. Samuel moved to Annapolis in 1759 to be trained in law. He apprenticed at Holland and Hall for four years. In Annapolis, Samuel had an active social life. He developed a life long friendship with William Paca, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1762, Samuel married Ann Baldwin, with whom he sired seven children. 

Samuel was admitted to the Bar in March 1763. He built a clientele that others would shun, but which served him well in his political aspirations. Those lower-class citizens remained loyal to him. In a highly contested contest, Samuel was elected to the Maryland lower house of the General Assembly. 

The Stamp Act and Sugar Act were looked upon with unkindness by the citizens of Maryland for the 1932 charter granted to Lord Baltimore stated that Maryland was exempt from taxes put in place by the Crown. Chase led an angry crowd to remove the man who distributed the stamped paper throughout Maryland. 

“The mob in Annapolis reassembled on 2 September and tore down the building Hood was going to use as a storehouse for the paper. This episode frightened Hood into fleeing to New York for sanctuary. The Maryland Governor, Horatio Sharpe, arranged for a British warship to keep the stamped paper on board, safe from the Annapolis mobs. Chase and his followers had ensured that no paper could be sold throughout the Colony; therefore, the Stamp Act could not be enforced when it became law.

“The Stamp Act went into effect on 1 November. General confusion ensued. Legally, courts could not function without the stamped paper, seaports could not load or unload cargo, and newspapers were shut down. The Colonists ignored the Act, and proceeded with unstamped paper in defiance of the Crown. The Frederick County Court was the first in Maryland to reopen. Chase was present for this event and certainly influenced this decision. Chase immediately resumed his law practice in Frederick County, using unstamped paper.” (The Society for the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

From 1767 to 1773, Samuel Chase, the “carthorse,” became a major force in Maryland politics. He was known for his stance in favor of the rights of the middling class. With the passage of the “Intolerable Acts,” Chase, Paca, and many others were set against the Crown. As time progressed, Chase advocated armed resistance and, eventually, open rebellion, which set him for a time in opposition to Maryland’s wishes for an alliance with Britain. Chase and Charles Carroll rode throughout Maryland’s many counties to enflame the residents to abandon ties with Britain. When Maryland’s provincial government agreed to separation, Chase rode the 150 miles (in 2 days) to Philadelphia to deliver the news to the Maryland delegation. Ironically, Chase missed the initial vote for independence and the agreement to the Declaration of Independence for his wife was seriously ill. 

“For several years following his signing of the Declaration, Chase spent most of his time on his law practice and helping write Maryland’s Constitution as well as the new nation’s Articles of Confederation. He began accepting students into his law office, including William Pickney who later became Attorney General of the United States.

“During the creation of the Articles of Confederation, Chase was involved with several provisions: Of these, the original colonial grants of the “landed” States beyond the Appalachian mountain range were the most important to him. Certain states, such as Virginia and South Carolina had parallel Northern and Southern borders reaching across the continent, all the way to the “South Sea,” i.e., the Pacific Ocean. As early as April 1776, Chase had recommended the Continental Congress appropriate these lands to help pay for the existing war effort. Now, Chase wanted the newly formed national government to have ownership and to control the lands beyond the Appalachians so that they could be used to increase revenue. Chase was overruled, and the “landed” States retained their colonial boundaries.” (DSDI)

“Prior to the Revolution, Maryland’s proprietary government had purchased stock in the Bank of England, using funds the government had obtained in taxes. Now, the face value of Maryland’s stock in the Bank stood at around £43,000 sterling; however, since the stock was being traded at a premium, the actual value, with accrued interest, stood at around £120,000 sterling. In April 1783, Maryland’s legislature authorized appointment of a state agent who was to request the London trustees to sell the stock and to transfer the proceeds and accumulated dividends to the State’s agent. All proceeds would be used to reduce Maryland’s outstanding war debts.

“William Paca, now Governor of Maryland, selected Samuel Chase to be the State’s agent. Chase sailed for England in August 1783. Chase contacted the Maryland trustees, all London merchants with long-standing relationships with Maryland’s former proprietary government. The trustees refused to comply. After months of wrangling over ownership, the Court of Chancery took action in June 1784 to have the stock and accrued dividends transferred to the Court’s accountant general pending a political solution of the ownership. Chase sailed for Maryland on August 1784 without having accomplished his mission.” (DSDI) He did succeed in one thing. He met and married the twenty-five year old Hannah Giles by whom he sired two daughters.” 

George Washington appointed Samuel Chase to the U. S. Supreme Court. “In 1796, Samuel Chase’s first Supreme Court session resulted in an opinion that has stood the test of time. In Ware v. Hylton, the issue was whether a state law could override the provisions of a national treaty. Chase argued that since the Treaty of Paris had been ratified, the provisions within the Treaty became, de jure, the supreme law of the land. Chase wrote

that a treaty could not be the supreme law of the land if a State legislature could override its provisions, thereby declaring the treaty provisions null and void. Since the Treaty of Paris had been ratified, its provisions could not be challenged. Chase’s opinion on the supremacy of national treaties over state laws remains valid.

“In the 1779 Court session, Samuel Chase wrote an opinion in Calder v.Bull that defined ex post facto laws under the Constitution. This definition has lasted, and is the one accepted today.

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“Samuel Chase’s thoughts on the supremacy of the Judiciary to declare a law as unconstitutional began to coalesce. In 1800, this role of the Supreme Court was in question, and Chase put fuel on the fire by beginning to espouse these thoughts.” (DSDI)

From Geni, we learn something of the impeachment proceedings. “President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed at the seizure of power by the judiciary through the claim of exclusive judicial review, led his party’s efforts to remove the Federalists from the bench. His allies in Congress had shortly after his inauguration repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, abolishing the lower courts created by the legislation and terminating their Federalist judges despite lifetime appointments; Chase, two years after the repeal in May 1803, had denounced it in his charge to a Baltimore grand jury, saying that it would “take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy[.]” Jefferson saw the attack as indubitable bad behavior and an opportunity to reduce the Federalist influence on the judiciary by impeaching Chase, launching the process from the White House when he wrote to Congressman Joseph Hopper Nicholson of Maryland asking: “Ought the seditious and official attack [by Chase] on the principles of our Constitution . . .to go unpunished?”

“Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke took up the challenge and took charge of the impeachment. The House of Representatives served Chase with eight articles of impeachment in late 1804, one of which involved Chase’s handling of the trial of John Fries. Two more focused on his conduct in the political libel trial of James Callender. Four articles focused on procedural errors made during Chase’s adjudication of various matters, and an eighth was directed at his “intemperate and inflammatory … peculiarly indecent and unbecoming … highly unwarrantable … highly indecent” remarks while “charging” or authorizing a Baltimore grand jury. The Jeffersonian Republicans-controlled United States Senate began the impeachment trial of Chase in early 1805, with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding and Randolph leading the prosecution.

“All the counts involved Chase’s work as a trial judge in lower circuit courts. (In that era, Supreme Court justices had the added duty of serving as individuals on circuit courts, a practice that was ended in the late 19th century.) The heart of the allegations was that political bias had led Chase to treat defendants and their counsel in a blatantly unfair manner. Chase’s defense lawyers called the prosecution a political effort by his Republican enemies. In answer to the articles of impeachment, Chase argued that all of his actions had been motivated by adherence to precedent, judicial duty to restrain advocates from improper statements of law, and considerations of judicial efficiency.

“The Senate voted to acquit Chase of all charges on March 1, 1805. He is the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to have been impeached.

“The impeachment raised constitutional questions over the nature of the judiciary and was the end of a series of efforts to define the appropriate extent of judicial independence under the Constitution. It set the limits of the impeachment power, fixed the concept that the judiciary was prohibited from engaging in partisan politics, defined the role of the judge in a criminal jury trial, and clarified judicial independence. The construction was largely attitudinal as it modified political norms without codifying new legal doctrines.

“The acquittal of Chase — by lopsided margins on several counts — set an unofficial precedent that many historians say helped ensure the independence of the judiciary. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted in his book Grand Inquests, some senators declined to convict Chase despite their partisan hostility to him, apparently because they doubted that the mere quality of his judging was grounds for removal. Furthermore, federal judges became much more cautious by avoiding the appearance of political partisanship. All impeachments of federal judges since Chase have been based on allegations of legal or ethical misconduct, not on judicial performance.

Death and legacy: “Samuel Chase died of a heart attack in 1811 and was interred in St. Paul’s Cemetery, which today is the name of a large, semi-rural cemetery southeast of the Baltimore Inner Harbor. However, in Chase’s lifetime, “St. Paul’s Cemetery” referred to a downtown churchyard on West Lombard Street. Notwithstanding, the cemetery entrance—open only on Saturday mornings—is on Redwood Street.

“The DAR’s “Lineage Book of the Charter Members” by Mary S Lockwood and published 1895 states Samuel Chase “assisted in establishing American Independence”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Samuel Chase, Only U. S. Supreme Court Judge to Face Impeachment Charges and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

  1. Fascinating, I love this series XD

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