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Monday, April 20, 2015


Kate Chase, 21 in 1861. Photo by Mathew Brady
Editor’s Note: The section on Kate Chase (1840-1899) is an excerpt from “Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century,” It was written more than 115 years ago and published in 1900 by Virginia Tatnall Peacock. The gushing style was not unusual for the late 1800s, especially because few American women achieved public adulation and the emotional fact the book was finished six months after Kate Chase’s death. The book has been digitalized for modern reading by Project Gutenberg.  The work is in the public domain.

Part I The Early Years
“...thus to the eye was Kate Chase, whose fame then superseded that of every woman in Ohio, and was shortly to surpass that of every woman of her generation in America.” –Virginia Tatnall Peacock.

There was a name in America a little more than a generation ago that possessed a power amounting almost to enchantment, the name of Kate Chase, a woman who holds a unique place in both the political and social history of this century. The story of her life, between the high lights of its early days and the shadows in which it closed, presents a peculiar succession of superlatives. There stands forth, however, through all its changes, one unvarying dominant feature which must strike us at once, whether we approach it in the spirit of a student or actuated merely by a passing curiosity: her absolute devotion to her father.
Kate Chase, 1860
From photograph by Julius Ulke

Through our knowledge of him, therefore, we may, in a measure, penetrate those mists in which she is enveloped by the divided opinion of a public, some of whom loved and idealized her as a social divinity, while others hated and maligned her as an opposing political force. Thus may we reach some just valuation of a character that with its man's virility and woman's delicacy was in itself singularly enigmatical, of its incentives and ideals, and, indirectly, therefore, of the failure and disappointments which have left their indelible stamp upon the life of Kate Chase.

In her father, profoundly cultured and endowed with inexhaustible intellectual resources, she found the complete realization of her most exalted conception. She well knew the tenderness of the heart, the sensitiveness of the nature, he carried beneath that superb exterior of majestic and unapproachable dignity. She lived in close communion with the man, the angry rebuke of whose eye, says one of his biographers, no transgressor could support. She was the central feature of his remarkable home.

Upon both of his daughters he expended a tenderness of devotion of which those who lived beyond the sphere of a personal acquaintance with him had no conception. Yet there have been inconspicuous women whom he might have fathered with more ultimate happiness to themselves than the remarkable daughter who is the subject of this sketch. Though he was a great man, winning justifiable distinction in every branch of the government of his country, he was yet not competent to cope with the problems which the life of such a woman as Kate Chase was continually presenting.

MODERN READING: In his brilliant historical novel “Lincoln,” author Gore Vidal details Washington society, especially the life of 20-something Kate Chase in Washington DC during the Civil War.

In her presence alone, in the proud carriage of her regal head, there was that singular power that, while it drew forth the love and admiration that are the expression of a generous nature, likewise provoked in those of a baser order a hideous envy and hatred that assailed her even as a young girl. With his benignant belief in the universal goodness of mankind, Chase was singularly deficient in that knowledge of human nature which should have enabled him to throw about her that sort of aggressive protection which she peculiarly required.

There is one little incident in his life that throws light upon his own character, and upon the principle he pursued in directing his daughter. He was a man of the most delicate tastes and with a high appreciation of all the niceties of life. When he took the platform as an abolitionist, he was rotten-egged. Removing as much as possible of the offensive effusion with his handkerchief, he continued with what he was saying. He made no modification in his statements, nor did he close the window through which the unsavory missiles had made their entrance. As far as possible he ignored the occurrence.

The scandal-monger he treated with the same silent scorn, continuing the tenor of his life as if he had not been made aware of his existence. But while he, a courageous man, might walk fearlessly amid the storm of the angry nation that impeached Andrew Johnson, and, regardless of its threats, discharge the duties of his high office with that calmness that distinguished all the acts of his judicial career and adds to the glory of his name in the eyes of a later generation, his daughter, though no less courageous, was yet "too slight a thing" to defy the gossips of even one Western town.

"Ah! little woman," she once said, laying her hand on the shoulder of one of her loyal friends to whom sorrow had come, "you, at least, have never made the mistake that I made. I never cared for the opinion or good-will of people. I ran my head against a stone wall. It did not hurt the wall but it has hurt the head." This is perhaps the nearest approach to self-justification she209 ever made for having essayed, with a man's independence, to live that most circumscribed life of a conspicuously beautiful woman.

Losing her own mother when she was scarcely beyond her infancy, and her step-mother before she had reached womanhood, and realizing early that she was treated in all things as his equal in years and understanding by the man whose superiority among his fellow-men she conceived to be beyond question, that spirit of self-reliance that is the natural outcome of all positive characters was intensified in her to an abnormal degree. While it gave her the fundamental qualifications of that leadership which she maintained with unparalleled brilliancy, it likewise, through lack of direction, developed that imperious tendency that proved so fatal to her own happiness.

She was the first child of Chase's marriage to his second wife, Eliza Ann Smith, and was named by her mother after his first wife, Katherine Garniss, for whom she had had a tender friendship and sincere admiration.

Salmon Portland Chase with his
daughters Janet Ralston "Nettie" and
Kate (right).  Photograph by
Mathew Brady

Of her birth, August, 13, 1840, her father's journal contains the following record, a characteristic statement of the event from a God-fearing man whose knowledge, not only of children, but of the human family in general, was largely drawn from "judicious treatises."

"I went apart, and kneeling down prayed God to support and comfort my dear wife, to preserve the life of the child, and save both from sin. I endeavored to give up the child and all into His hands. After a while I went into the room. The birth had taken place at 2 am on the 13th. After I had seen my wife and child, I went into the library and read a few pages in Eber's book on children, a judicious treatise. At last I became tired, and, though it was now day, lay down and slept awhile. The babe is pronounced pretty. I think it quite otherwise. It is, however, well formed, and I am thankful. May God give the child a good understanding that she may know and keep his commandments."

Of the early age at which Chase elected to test that understanding, his journal also furnishes an evidence. An entry therein, under date of November 24, 1845, about two months after her mother's death, shows the dawn of that remarkable intellectual intercourse which he maintained with his daughter till the end of his life. "This day," it reads, "has been marked by no extraordinary event. Rose, as usual of late, before sunrise; breakfasted with sister Alice and little Kate. Read Scriptures (Job) to little Kate, who listened and seemed to be pleased, probably with the solemn rhythm, for she certainly can understand very little; then prayed with her; then to town in omnibus, unshaven for want of time."

Within that same year he also recorded in his journal that he was teaching "dear little Kate to read verses in the Bible and listening to her recite poems."

Thus early, without any particular system probably, but wholly delightfully and under a most patient and winning master, begun the training of one of the most astute and brilliant minds with which a woman was ever gifted. She was keen and clever rather than profound, and her quick intelligence caught and assimilated the fruit of her father's years of study.

Without having his absorbing love of books, she yet read much and forgot nothing. Chase used to say that in the miscellaneous reading of his boyhood, it was the pleasure he derived from a stray law-book that determined his choice of career. He pursued his profession with the ardor of real love, and his daughter imbibed from him a substantial knowledge of its technicalities. He used to go over his cases with her very much at first in the spirit in which he had read Job to her, later because he delighted in her understanding, and finally because she had become genuinely helpful to him.

Well ordered and simple was the atmosphere of the home in which she grew up. As was his custom from the time he established his own home till the end of his life, Chase called his household together at the beginning of every day to ask the blessing and protection of God. There were times, as seen from his journal, when little Kate seems to have been his only companion, yet the duty was never omitted.

She walked with him often to his office or to court in the morning, both in Ohio and after they had removed to Washington, talking sometimes of the things which interested her, but more frequently of those which engrossed him, for it was his life and his ambitions that gave color to both of their existences. He had taught her early his favorite games, chess and backgammon, which she often played with him in the quiet evenings they spent together, or, if it were out of doors, croquet or some simple childish game, for she was part of the relaxation of his lighter hours as she was the repository of all the confidences and hopes of his public career.
His third marriage, in 1846, to Sarah Ludlow identified him with one of the prominent families of Cincinnati; Israel Ludlow, his wife's grandfather, having been one of the founders of the city. Chase, himself, though an Eastern man, born in Cornish, New Hampshire, whence he had migrated on coming of age, was now one of the prominent figures of Cincinnati, a busy, prosperous lawyer, with excellent political prospects, which met their first realization when, in 1849, he was elected to the United States Senate.

When he came, six years later, into the governorship of his State he was again a widower, and Kate, though less than 15 years of age, took her place at the head of his home.

Accustomed since the dawn of memory to the most considerate attentions from the most kingly of men, she already carried herself with that noble grace that made her presence felt in every assemblage above that of all others, no matter how simply she clothed herself nor how quietly she deported herself.

Chase was the first of Ohio's governors to take up his official residence at Columbus. There, for a year, Kate went as a day pupil to Mr. Heyl's seminary, and later studied in the same institution music and languages, having for the latter an unusual gift. She spoke French faultlessly, especially after her long residence abroad, which came later in her life. Her German, while it was fluent, had always a suggestion of a foreign accent that in her seemed rather pleasing than otherwise. Her native tongue she wielded with rare perfection, and no one who has heard Kate Chase talk will ever forget the magic of her voice, the life her graphic and discriminating language breathed into every thought to which she gave utterance, while her wonderful eyes expressed, even betrayed, every emotion.

An old man who served the Chase family for years in the capacity of coachman once paid a tribute to the delicacy and power of her verbal delineations which many a man of more enlightened intelligence more gracefully, perhaps, but not more aptly acknowledged. He said he knew no greater pleasure than to take Miss Kate off in the carriage with a book in her lap, and, without opening it, for her to tell him every word that it contained from beginning to end.

The positive element of her character had already manifested itself by the time she was 16 years old. She was, at about that period, out of compliment to her father, elected to the secretaryship of a charitable organization of women, all of whom were many years her senior. During the course of one of the meetings, a physician, of whose services the body had availed itself, and who had given offence to some of its members, was made the object of an abuse as senseless as it was verbose.

The spirit of opposition was more timorous in the feminine organization of that day than it is in those that have been the outgrowths of later years, and Kate Chase, alone, had the courage to rise in defence of the absent doctor. Appealing to the chair to silence the undignified outburst, she won on the spot an ill-will that followed her long after those who cherished it had forgotten its original cause. But her young life was full of a sweet homage, and such a graceful tribute as was conveyed in the knowledge that one of the ex-governors of the State had named the most beautiful rose in his famous garden after her, easily atoned for the ill-will of a few people which seemed, after all, but a ripple on the ever-broadening surface of her life.

Kate Chase, before her marriage to U.S. Senator William Sprague, who became a
general in the U.S. Army, often charmed her way to the front.  In this case under the
protection of General J.J. Abercrombie (white beard) and his staff.
The growing strength of the Republican party, which had been ushered into existence in her father's law offices in Cincinnati, under the inspiration of Dr. Gamaliel Baily, revealed possibilities to a man of Chase's ambition and ability that haunted him thenceforth till the end of his life. Kate knew intimately the strong men who formed the nucleus of that great party. She knew its aims and purposes, and was in possession of its secret history contained in her father's letters and journals and in her own memory of its inception and progress. Yet nothing ever wrung them from her, though she was frequently approached by magazine editors with offers that would have been a temptation even to those in less need.

Her father's ambition became the absorbing object of her life, developing in her, before she had reached her twentieth year, a scientific knowledge of politics that no woman, and few men, have ever surpassed. "I know your bright mind," once wrote Roscoe Conkling, in submitting to her a political problem, "will solve this quicker than mine." It has been said that many details of the campaign of 1884, against Blaine, who was Conkling's political enemy, were planned at Edgewood.
To an intellect naturally endowed with many masculine qualities, she added a woman's quicker wit and greater powers of divination and an overmastering love for the father in whose interest she exercised every faculty of her gifted mind.

When the first convention of the Republican party met at Chicago, in 1860, to nominate a president, Chase was a prominent candidate for that honor. His daughter accompanied him to Chicago, and thence for the first time her name went forth over the land. His confidence in her, his reliance upon her, treating her in all respects more as if she were a son than a daughter, her youth, and the purely feminine quality of her beauty rendered her unique and conspicuous.

The choice of the new party fell upon Abraham Lincoln, and Seward, who supported him and opposed Chase's pretensions, received later the recognition of his services when he was tendered the first place in Lincoln's cabinet. Chase was, however, elected for the second time to the United States Senate, where he took his seat March 4, 1861. Two days later he had resigned and gone into Lincoln's cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. His home was thus transferred to Washington, where, going later on the Supreme Bench, he passed the balance of his days, neither he nor his children ever returning to Ohio. Chase was even laid to rest in Washington, and slept over thirteen years in beautiful Oak Hill. In the fall of 1886, however, his daughter had him removed to Ohio, that he might rest finally in the State that had been his home and that was associated with his early fame.

Part II: The Washington Years will conclude tomorrow on this blog.

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