Salmon P. Chase Predicts Emancipation

On March 6, 1861, the Richmond Examiner published a story entitled “Horrible purposes of the party in power.” It related a conversion on February 15 in Washington, D.C., between Salmon P. Chase and a “Dr. Wirt” of “Westmoreland.” Dr. Wirt was almost certainly Dr. William D. Wirt of Westmoreland County, Virginia, the grandson of William Wirt, U.S. Attorney General in the administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams.

Salmon P. Chase, the ex-governor of Ohio, was then in line for a seat in Lincoln’s cabinet (he would become Secretary of the Treasury), and so his views were of great interest to nervous Virginians in early March 1861 wondering whether to remain faithful to the Union or secede and join the Confederacy. Chase clearly was the member of Lincoln’s cabinet with the strongest ties to abolitionism. Early in his career as a lawyer, Chase had defended so many fugitive slaves in Ohio against their owners attempts to reclaim them, he became know as the “Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves.” Although never a radical abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, he was an early member of the free-soil Liberty Party and then the Republican Party, and a strong believer in the Slave Power conspiracy, the idea in 1850s that southern slaveholders had effective control of the national government, and were using it to advance their interests at the expense of free people.

According to Wirt, Salmon P. Chase indicated he expected Lincoln to resist South Carolina’s attempt to force federal troops from Fort Sumter in Charleston resulting in the secession of the Upper South and civil war. Asked by Wirt if “he expected [the North] to subjugate the South?,” Chase replied:

“‘Ten millions of people, with four millions of slaves in their midst, could scarcely resist twenty-six millions.’ But what is your object? Inquired Dr. Wirt, and he answered, ‘to free the slave who is the cause of the war.’ What will you do with him when thus freed? ‘Allow you to have him as a “Peon” to work your fields, if you are willing to pay for their services; if not, they can be colonized in Central America.‘ Dr. Wirt then inquired if the fugitive slave law was to be respected. Mr. Chase said:’It would have to be modified, and when a slave who escaped was pursued and identified, he could be given up or paid for; if paid for, he would be sent to the aforesaid colony in Central America.”

“He added, in the event of war in the South, no slaves would be in Virginia within one year; and in ten years, no slaves would be found within the borders of the Southern Confederacy.”

Certainly not all of Salmon Chase’s predictions came to pass. Slavery persisted in Virginia until the end of the war and despite the efforts of Lincoln’s administration no colonization of emancipated slaves occurred in Central America.  But Chase was correct that civil war would result in the end of slavery, and his assertion that the northern war goal was to “free the slave who is the cause of the war,” although certainly not true in March 1861, would become true (and certainly upset slaveholders intent on preserving at all costs the peculiar institution).

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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