Samuel Chase was one of the most significant and controversial members of America's revolutionary generation. Irascible and difficult, but also extremely capable, he played a central role in Maryland politics during the 1760s and 1770s, signed the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, and was a member of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1778. In the latter year ALEXANDER HAMILTON denounced him for using confidential information to speculate in the flour market. During the 1780s Chase pursued various business interests, practiced law, rebuilt his political reputation, and became an important anti-Federalist leader. After the adoption of the Constitution, for reasons that remain unclear, he became an ardent Federalist.
In 1795 he was nominated for a position on the federal bench. President GEORGE WASHINGTON was at first wary of recommending him, but when he had trouble filling a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, he offered the position to Chase, who accepted in 1796. As one of the better legal minds in the early republic, Chase delivered several of the Court's most important decisions in the pre-Marshall period. In WARE V. HYLTON (1796) he provided one of the strongest statements ever issued on the supremacy of national treaties over state laws. The decision invalidated a Virginia statute of 1777 that placed obstacles in the way of recovery of debts owed by Americans to British
creditors, a law in clear violation of a specific provision of the treaty of peace with Great Britain (1783). In HYLTON V. UNITED STATES (1796) Chase and the Supreme Court for the first time passed upon the constitutionality of an act of Congress, upholding the carriage tax of 1794. Chase concluded that only CAPITATION TAXES were direct taxes subject to the constitutional requirement of apportionment among the states according to population. In CALDER V. BULL (1798), where the Supreme Court held that the prohibition against EX POST FACTO LAWS in the Constitution extended only to criminal, not civil, laws, Chase addressed the issue of constitutionality in natural law terms, presaging those late-nineteenth-century jurists who, in furthering the concept of SUBSTANTIVE DUE PROCESS, were to argue that the Supreme Court could properly hold laws invalid for reasons lying outside the explicit prohibitions of the constitutional text. Riding circuit, he ruled in United States v. Worrall (1798) that the federal courts had no...