A Testimonial of Gratitude in Silver: Salmon P. Chase and his Defense of Samuel Watson
Posted On: 12/29/2017 - 11:32am, Posted By: Scott Gampfer, Associate Vice President for Collections & Preservation
“I would rather possess the smallest evidence of regard from the oppressed & the injured, than a gemmed ring from the Emperor Nicholas.” With those words Salmon Portland Chase confided to fellow abolitionist Gerrit Smith his true feelings about the receipt of an engraved silver pitcher from the African American residents of Cincinnati in 1845 for his defense of the slave Samuel Watson.
In 1841, Samuel Watson, a slave in Virginia, was taken by his owner Mr. Adams to Arkansas. After leaving Watson in Arkansas, Adams returned to Virginia and died some time later. Eventually Watson’s ownership was conveyed to a Mr. Floyd. Henry Hoppess, acting as an agent for Floyd, left Virginia for Arkansas with the goal of collecting Watson and conveying him back home. Watson and Hoppess were slowly making their way up the Ohio River aboard the steamboat Ohio Belle when in the early morning hours of January 21, 1845, the boat landed at Cincinnati and “was made fast to the shore.” When he learned of the captain’s intent to land at Cincinnati, Hoppess requested that he be landed at Covington, Kentucky instead, a request ignored by the captain.
Although in the stern of the boat and under orders not to leave, at some point that morning Watson stepped off the boat and went missing. Watson, having shown no signs of intending to escape, was located by Hoppess that evening on the landing. Alarmed by this incident however, Hoppess had Watson confined by constables in the “Watch House.” The next morning the matter was taken before a Magistrate to obtain a certificate for Watson’s removal as a fugitive from service. A writ of Habeas Corpus was allowed by Judge Nathaniel C. Read, one of four justices of the Ohio Supreme Court, which resulted in both Watson and Hoppess being brought before him. Mr. Hoppess was required to justify his seizure and detention of Watson. Judge Read had to decide if Watson was a fugitive slave subject to recapture, or was now a free man by virtue of his presence in a free state.
The proceedings began on Tuesday, February 11, 1845 in a packed hall on Fourth Street. Hoppess, the claimant, was represented by Nathaniel and Milton McLean and Watson was represented by attorneys Johnson, Birney, and Salmon P. Chase, the well-known abolitionist and advocate for fugitive slaves. Birney and Johnson laid out the case in behalf of Watson, with Birney selected to make the opening argument and Chase to make the closing. Mr. Birney’s opening speech lasted some two and a half hours “stating it with distinctness, and sustaining by a strong array of argument and authority, the points intended to be pressed upon the Court.” Birney, Johnson, and Chase’s argument rested on six main points.
- No escape had taken place.
- The escape, if there was one, was made from one point in Ohio to another and thus was outside of the constitutional provision as to escaping servants and the Act of 1793.
- Since the Ohio Belle was fastened to the Ohio shore, and within the low water mark at the time of the escape, it was within the State of Ohio.
- Watson, having been taken to Arkansas by his master, was free there and could not be reclaimed.
- The Act of 1793, relating to fugitives from service, was in fact, unconstitutional.
- The ordinance of 1787 limited the right of reclaiming escaping servants in the Northwest Territory (and the states erected out of it) to cases of escapes from an original state to the territory. Watson, not having escaped from an original state, could not then be deemed a fugitive from service.
The McLeans, after being careful to profess no sympathy for slavery and acknowledging that slavery was rooted in wrong and in injustice, nevertheless made their arguments for the claimant.
Salmon Chase’s closing argument started at 2:30 in the afternoon of February 17th and continued until the court adjourned for the day at 6:00pm. He concluded his closing at noon the following day. His speech brought an “involuntary and general burst of applause. It was immediately checked by the Court…”
The Cincinnati Weekly Herald and Philanthropist praised Chase’s effort, “His clear and comprehensive views of Constitutional Law, presented in language remarkable for its great strength and precision, the deep veneration for pure, inflexible Justice, which stamps every argument, every appeal, and the earnest, sincere, and dignified manner of his address, produce a powerful effect upon all listeners…” All perhaps, except Judge Read, who proceeded to render his decision.
On all major points he rejected the defense arguments. Read conceded that “if a slave come ashore any where in Ohio, by the consent of the master, he becomes free…“ Unfortunately, Watson had left the boat without the knowledge or consent of Hoppess. Read stated that if a boat with a slave and master stopped at a point in Ohio, for any purpose connected with the voyage, the relationship between master and slave was not dissolved. He held that a slave escaping to Ohio from a new state is subject to recapture as though the escape had been from one of the original states. He brushed aside the contention that Watson became free when he was taken to Arkansas, and “sustained the constitutionality of the present summary process against escaping servants.”
Following the adjournment of the court, Watson was immediately taken by Hoppess, aided by the constables Davidson and Ruffin, who attempted to take him out of the court. Their progress was briefly interrupted when a scuffle broke out as several African American men attempted to stop them. Armed with the judge’s decision, Hoppess took Watson before a Magistrate who issued the certificate of removal. In desperation, Watson turned to his attorney Birney and exclaimed “Have you done everything – can nothing more be done?” After Birney assured him that nothing more could be done, Watson said “God Almighty bless you, then, Mr. Birney! I’ll never forget you.” With that heartfelt exclamation, Watson was taken by Hoppess across the river to a Covington jail, and from there back to Virginia and a life of slavery.
Although Chase et al lost the case, the free black population of Cincinnati had watched the proceedings carefully and in particular were moved by the passion and force of Chase’s closing arguments. A meeting was held by black citizens of the city after the case was concluded and it was determined that their appreciation should be communicated to each of the attorneys who represented Watson, who had of course done their work without compensation. In addition, a decision was made to present Chase with an engraved silver pitcher for his work on the Watson case and for services rendered in defense of other fugitive slaves. A handsome pitcher was fabricated by the Cincinnati firm of E. & D. Kinsey and inscribed with the following words:
TESTIMONIAL OF GRATITUDE
SALMON P. CHASE,
THE COLORED PEOPLE OF CINCINNATI,
Various public services in behalf of the oppressed,
And particularly for his
ELOQUENT ADVOCACY OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN,
in the case of Samuel Watson,
who was claimed as a fugitive slave,
The silver pitcher was presented to Salmon P. Chase by Mr. A. J. Gordon in a ceremony on the evening of Tuesday, May 6, 1845 at the Union Baptist Church. In his acceptance remarks, Chase stated, “I am certainly gratified that my humble services have procured for me this token of your approbation and esteem.” He concluded his remarks by restating his commitment to fight for the elimination of slavery, “I am ready to renew my pledge – and I will venture to speak also in behalf of my co-workers, - that we will go straight on, without faltering or wavering, until every vestige of oppression shall be erased from the statute book: - until the sun in all his journey from the utmost eastern horizon, through the mid-heaven, till he sinks beyond the western mountains into his ocean bed, shall not behold, in all our broad and glorious land, the foot print of a single slave.”
The pitcher remained a treasured object by Chase during the remainder of his life. The entire family understood the personal and historical significance of the pitcher. While Chase was serving as a U.S. Senator from Ohio in 1852, there were a series of house burglaries in Clifton, the location of the Chase home. Family members were worried about the safety of Chase’s house so they removed some of the more valuable possessions for safekeeping. One family member was specifically worried about the pitcher. When she discovered that it had already been removed, she wrote to Chase that she believed the pitcher was “the most valuable article in your possession, from its being a testimonial of regard and gratitude, from an oppressed people whom you have benefitted.”
The pitcher remained in the possession of Salmon Chase’s descendants until its donation to Cincinnati Museum Center by Chase’s great-great grandson, William Benjamin.
The engraved Salmon Chace pitcher is currently on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center along with Chace’s headstone from his original burial site near Washington, D.C., prior to his remains being reburied at Spring Grove Cemetery in 1886.