Details, Details

As I write the Chase biography, I continue research, and interesting details emerge. I am working today on the chapter about 1856. I knew that Chase had dinner with Francis Blair and others in Washington on December 29, 1855, and I knew that Chase gave his inaugural address as governor in Columbus on January 14, 1856. But where was he in between? Did he hasten home to Columbus to get ready to become governor? Or did he remain in Washington, perhaps having quiet conversations about the Republican presidential nomination?

I work a lot, in this period, with the Ohio State Journal, a quasi-official Republican paper in Columbus. I am grateful to the Ohio History Center for putting the paper “up” in digital form. The search engine is not great, so I did a day-by-day search for the first few days of 1856, and lo and behold, found an article on January 11, copied from the Cincinnati Gazette, reporting that Chase had been in Washington “attending a Supreme Court case.” I then did a search on, a commercial database to which I subscribe, for “Chase Supreme Court” for January 1856, and lo and behold, the Washington Evening Star reported on January 5 that Chase and others had argued on January 4 the case of Jones v. Johnston. I then looked up the case, in the US Reports, and lo and behold there is Chase listed as lead counsel for one side.

None of the prior biographies of Chase even mentioned this case, probably because Chase himself does not mention it in his letters. The case was a property dispute between two landowners over alluvial land formed when the Chicago River changed its course. So in a sense not that important, not about the central issue of my book, slavery and antislavery. But it seems to me worth a mention, to give a more rounded sense of Chase’s Supreme Court experience before he became Chief Justice. In terms of chronology, I turned to a source I love, Dates of Early Supreme Court Decisions and Arguments, on the Supreme Court website. According to this source, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Jones case on January 3, 4 and 7, 1856.

Another question that has troubled me: where exactly did Chase give his inaugural address as governor on January 14? Some sources talk about it being in the “hall of the House of Representatives” but the state capitol was under construction at this time. Was the address in the unfinished capitol building? Or in the Neil House, a nearby hotel, the temporary home of the legislature? Answer, according to the Ohio State Journal of January 15, 1856, in an article I somehow missed; in Mr. Neil’s Odeon Hall. The article had some details about the audience (many ladies) and the setting that I will use in the book.

None of this is that dramatic. But concrete details are, in my view, what make a paragraph or a page come alive. Bit by bit, page by page, my book on Chase is coming alive.