Chase was the son of an Anglican clergyman. He was born in 1741 at the farmhouse of his mother's parents on Maryland's Eastern Shore near the city of Princess Anne. His mother had come there from her home at nearby Allen for a visit. She died at or soon after the birth. Likely Chase's grandparents cared for him at least a few years, until about the time his father took over a parish in Baltimore. The latter provided the youth with his initial education, mainly in the classics.
Between the ages of 18 and 20, Chase read law with an Annapolis firm and joined the bar in 1761. The next year, he married; his wife bore at least two sons and two daughters. Two years after his marriage, he entered the colonial State legislature and retained membership for two decades. From the beginning, he opposed the royal government. Annapolis officials denounced him for his participation in the violent protests of the Sons of Liberty in 1765 against the Stamp Act. In 1774-75 he took part in the Maryland committee of correspondence, council of safety, and the provincial convention.
In the former year, Chase had joined the Continental Congress. He advocated an embargo on trade with Britain, showed special interest in diplomatic matters, early urged a confederation of the Colonies, defended George Washington from his congressional detractors, and in 1776 journeyed to Montreal with a commission that tried but failed to achieve a union with Canada. When he returned to Philadelphia around the middle of June, Congress had just postponed the vote on the Lee independence resolution. Realizing that Maryland was straddling the fence on the issue, Chase rushed home. Along with Charles Carroll of Carrollton and William Paca, he labored for 2 weeks to overcome opposition and won a committal to independence from the convention. The Maryland Delegates registered it in time for the first congressional vote, on July 1. In 1778 Chase lost his office because of adverse publicity generated by the advantage he had taken of knowledge gained in Congress to engage in a profiteering scheme.
In 1783-84 Chase traveled to London as a State emissary on an unfruitful mission to recover Maryland stock in the Bank of England from two fugitive Loyalists. Upon his return apparently, his first wife having died, he remarried; resumed his law practice; and engaged in various unsuccessful business enterprises that led to bankruptcy in 1789. Meantime, he had reentered politics. In 1785 he had represented Maryland at the Mount Vernon (Va.) Conference, forerunner of the Annapolis Convention. The next year, he moved his family from Annapolis to Baltimore, where he soon became chief judge of the Baltimore County criminal court (1788-95). As a delegate to the Maryland ratifying convention in 1788, he strongly opposed the Constitution, though he later became a staunch Federalist. From 1791 until 1794, while still a county judge, he also held the position of chief justice of the Maryland Superior Court.
Chase achieved his greatest fame as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1796-1811). He was one of the ablest jurists in the body prior to Chief Justice John Marshall (1801-35), and delivered many influential opinions. His inability to control his political partisanship while on the bencha trait he shared with some other judges of his time-led to various judicial improprieties and impeachment proceedings against him in 1805. But Congress acquitted him.
Still a Justice, Chase died in Baltimore 2 months after he celebrated his 70th birthday. His grave is in St. Paul's Cemetery.
Drawing: Oil, 1819, by Charles Willson Peale, after his 1773 painting, Independence National Historical Park.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004