Two and a Half Cheers for Salmon P. Chase

There are only three guys on the money who did not serve as President: Alexander Hamilton on the ten, Ben Franklin on the hundred and… if you get the other one, you’re really knowledgeable or else really rich. His name is Salmon P. Chase and he’s on the ten thousand dollar bill.

He’s mentioned in Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln The Prairie Years, the other half of which is called The War Years.

“He [Lincoln] had heard,” Sandburg writes, “of the auction sale in Lexington [Kentucky] of Eliza, a beautiful girl with dark lustrous eyes, straight black hair, rich olive complexion, only one sixty-fourth African, white yet a slave.

“A young Methodist minister, Calvin Fairbank, bid higher and higher against a thick-necked Frenchman from New Orleans. Reaching $1,200, the Frenchman asked, ‘How high are you going?’ and Fairbank, ‘Higher than you, Monsieur.’

“Seeing the Frenchman hesitating, the sweating auctioneer pulled Eliza’s dress back from her shoulders and cried, ‘Who is going to lose a chance like this?’ To the Frenchman’s bid of $1,465, the minister bid $1,475.

“Hearing no more bids, the auctioneer shocked the crowd by lifting her skirts and slapping her thighs as he called, ‘Who is going to be the winner of this prize?’

The Frenchman bid $1,580 and the clergyman bid $1,585.

“The auctioneer: ‘I’m going to sell this girl. Are you going to bid?’ The Frenchman shook his head.

“The auctioneer to Fairbank: ‘You’ve got her damned cheap sir. What are you going to do with her?’ and Fairbank cried, ‘Free her!’ Most of the crowd shouted and yelled in glee.

“Fairbank was there by arrangement with Salmon P. Chase and Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati, who had authorized him to bid as high as $25,000.”

The reason Salmon P. Chase gets only two and a half cheers is that the woman was beautiful and mostly white, which when you think about it kind of sends the wrong message. Why only her?

In fairness Chase was an ardent abolitionist who represented many former slaves in court, even if they weren’t beautiful and mostly white, and was known (derisively at the time) as “the Attorney General of fugitive slaves.”

As Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Chase figured out how to finance the Civil War. And Lincoln named him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

As for Fairbank, he gets the full three cheers, and good hearty ones at that. He spent a total of seventeen years in prison for antislavery activity.