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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Montalbano: It’s time Dartmouth honors the alumni who fought for equality

Dartmouth alumni Salmon P. Chase, Class of 1826, and Thaddeus Stevens, Class of 1814, do not receive enough attention from the College for advocating for the abolition of slavery.

This article is featured in the 2024 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

In 1819, Daniel Webster uttered the famous line, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it” in the Supreme Court case Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. Within a decade of the case, two future statesmen, Thaddeus Stevens, Class of 1814, and Salmon Portland Chase, Class of 1826, would be on the rise in their respective legal practices, becoming famous — or, to many at the time, infamous for their work on progressing racial equality. Unfortunately, their memories have not been honored by Dartmouth to nearly the extent they should. 

Five years before Webster’s famous speech, Thaddeus Stevens, a Vermonter with a slight limp and impassioned oratorical skills, graduated from Dartmouth. An aspiring attorney, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania, where he developed a fiery hatred of the slavery he witnessed first hand across the border in Maryland. 

Twelve years after Stevens earned his degree, Salmon Chase graduated from Dartmouth, before moving to Ohio and establishing a law practice where he represented escaped enslaved people in court. Stevens and Chase are arguably two of the most important northern abolitionists from the 19th century. We should recognize Stevens and Chase far more frequently than we do now. 

Stevens and Chase were both shaped by Dartmouth’s Federalist, generally anti-slavery sentiment in the early 19th century. The school instilled within both men strong senses of compassion, justice and idealism. Stevens would go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, leading the “Radical Republicans,” a faction of the nascent Republican Party dedicated to the abolition of slavery. In fact, Stevens even feuded with President Abraham Lincoln over the nation’s slow adoption of anti-slavery policies during the Civil War. After the war, Stevens dedicated his efforts to fighting for racial justice and equality and introduced the impeachment resolution against President Andrew Johnson, who had strong reservations about Reconstruction. Stevens’s final wish on his deathbed was to be buried alongside Black Americans.

Chase pursued a similar path to Stevens. He helped form the abolitionist Liberty and Free Soil Parties, was appointed as a U.S. Senator for Ohio and was eventually elected governor of Ohio. During his tenure in the Senate, Chase fought with Webster over the Compromise of 1850, believing it to be a capitulation to Southern slaveholding interests. Although Chase lost the 1860 Republican presidential nomination to Lincoln, he was appointed as Secretary of the Treasury and proved instrumental in financing the Union war effort. Though Chase resigned in 1864 due to political differences with the administration, Lincoln nominated Chase to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court six months later. As the nation’s leading jurist, Chase admitted the first Black American, John Rock, to the Supreme Court bar, presided over Johnson’s impeachment trial and wrote the majority decision in Texas v. White, in which the Court ruled that secession from the United States was illegal. Chase also vocally supported universal male suffrage until his death in 1873.

Abolitionism and struggles for racial equality were, at least in part, led by Dartmouth alumni. I find it deeply unfortunate that the administration does not more prominently recognize Stevens and Chase as individuals all students can learn and take inspiration from. 

At present, the College is littered with portraits, busts and general homages to Webster — and for good reason. But if we seek to show the United States and the rest of the world that Dartmouth has always stood for justice, equality and progress, we must further elevate the legacies of other graduates of our small college who have worked to ensure the world is just a little better off than when they found it. And we should start with Stevens and Chase. While Chase has a building named after him, Chase Hall at the Tuck School of Business, I would like to see his name mentioned more frequently on campus. Stevens, meanwhile, deserves a building of his own. The next time a new building is constructed, or when one is in need of a name change (I can think of a few), instead of naming it after a donor, we should pay tribute to this great figure, who Dartmouth helped shape into a defender of equality and justice.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.