Hamil-Burrn: Samuel Chase, the Publius Letters, and Hamilton’s Critique of Public Corruption

At age 21, a young and fiery Alexander Hamilton directed some serious vitriol towards Samuel Chase, a Maryland Congressman.  As a Congressman, Chase had known of Congress’ secret plan for securing flour to supply the French fleet. He then passed on this information to profit-minded associates, who hatched a plan to corner the supply of flour and raise its price.  In a series of three Publius letters in October and November 1778, Hamilton blasted Chase for seeking to profit from the Revolution, and using his position as a Member of Congress to damage the country and the Revolutionary movement.

The first Publius letter, published on October 16, 1778 accused Chase of violating his sacred responsibilities of office:

But when a man, appointed to be the guardian of the State, and the depositary of the happiness and morals of the people—forgetful of the solemn relation, in which he stands—descends to the dishonest artifices of a mercantile projector, and sacrifices his conscience and his trust to pecuniary motives; there is no strain of abhorrence, of which the human mind is capable, nor punishment, the vengeance of the people can inflict, which may not be applied to him, with justice. If it should have happened that a Member of C———ss has been this degenerate character, and has been known to turn the knowledge of secrets, to which his office gave him access, to the purposes of private profit, by employing emissaries to engross an article of immediate necessity to the public service; he ought to feel the utmost rigor of public resentment, and be detested as a traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.

Hamilton’s deep abhorrence of corruption and the use of political power for personal gain is apparent in his criticism of Chase.  Particularly during a time of war, Hamilton felt that Chase’s use of information he had gained through his position of political trust for profit made him a “traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.”

Hamilton’s second letter, published on October 26, 1778, criticized Chase as a man of mediocre (at best) talents, who had forced himself into public view as a result of the scandal and thus “acquired an indisputed title to be immortalised in infamy.”  Hamilton packed no punches in his letter, and his contempt of Chase shines unmistakably through:

The honor of being the hero of a public panegeric, is what you could hardly have aspired to, either from your talents, or from your good qualities. The partiality of your friends has never given you credit for more than mediocrity in the former; and experience has proved, that you are indebted for all your consequence, to the reverse of the latter. Had you not struck out a new line of prostitution for yourself, you might still have remained unnoticed, and contemptible—your name scarcely known beyond the little circle of your electors and clients, and recorded only in the journals of C–––––ss. But you have now forced yourself into view, in a light too singular and conspicuous to be over-looked, and have acquired an indisputed title to be immortalised in infamy.

In his third and final Publius letter on the subject of Chase’s corruption, dated November 16, 1778, Hamilton painted a picture of Chase as someone driven by greed alone, who had achieved success but who had gone too far to return to a position of public trust

The love of money and the love of power are the predominating ingredients of your mind—cunning the characteristic of your understanding. This, has hitherto carried you successfully through life, and has alone raised you to the exterior consideration, you enjoy. The natural consequence of success, is temerity. It has now proceeded one step too far, and precipitated you into measures, from the consequences of which, you will not easily extricate yourself; your avarice will be fatal to your ambition. I have too good an opinion of the sense and spirit, to say nothing of the virtue of your countrymen, to believe they will permit you any longer to abuse their confidence, or trample upon their honour.

Hamilton urged Chase to resign from office in light of the scandal, and to stop the facade of patriotism.

It is a mark of compassion, to which you are not intitled, to advise you by a timely and voluntary retreat, to avoid the ignominy of a formal dismission. Your career has held out as long as you could have hoped. It is time you should cease to personate the fictitious character you have assumed, and appear what you really are—lay aside the mask of patriotism, and assert your station among the honorable tribe of speculators and projectors. Cultivate a closer alliance with your D—s—y and your W—t, the accomplices and instruments of your guilt, and console yourself for the advantage you have lost, by indulging your genius, without restraint, in all the forms and varieties of fashionable peculation.

Hamilton’s accusations effectively ended Chase’s career in the Continental Congress, and led him to near bankruptcy.  Chase went home to Maryland, but returned to the national stage in the 1780s as a strong critic of the new Constitution.  Chase would eventually switch his political beliefs and became aligned with the Federalist Party.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (image from Wikipedia)

Interestingly, after his fall from the Continental Congress in disgrace, Chase was appointed by President Washington to be a Supreme Court justice in 1796.  Chase later came into President Jefferson’s cross-hairs after openly criticizing the Democratic-Republicans for the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801.  Chase was served with eight articles of impeachment, and Vice President Aaron Burr presided over his impeachment trial.  Chase was ultimately not impeached by a large margin, and served on the Supreme Court until his death.  Chase’s victory in avoiding impeachment helped maintain judicial independence from the executive and legislative branches.   To read more about the trial, I recommend a 1967 article from the Maryland Law Review: “The Trials of Mr. Justice Samuel Chase.”  It’s a fascinating read, and is available for free online via Digital Commons.

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