Campbell, John Archibald

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Campbell, John Archibald

John Archibald Campbell was a politician, a statesman, and an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court during the turbulent years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War.

Born June 24, 1811, in Washington, Georgia, the son of a prominent landowner and lawyer, Campbell was a child of exceptional intellectual ability. He entered Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) at the age of eleven and graduated at fourteen with high honors. He then entered West Point but he withdrew after three years to return home and support his family following the death of his father. He also studied law privately and in 1828, at the age of eighteen, he was admitted to the Georgia bar by a special act of the Georgia legislature. He then moved to Alabama, married, and practiced law, first in Montgomery and then in Mobile.

Widely known for his skilled arguments and his extensive knowledge of the law, Campbell quickly became a leading lawyer in Alabama. He turned down two appointments to the state supreme court, the first one offered to him when he was only twenty-four. An active Democrat, Campbell also found time for politics and, in 1836, he was elected to the first of two terms in the Alabama state legislature. He was a delegate to the Nashville Convention of 1850 which was convened to protect southern rights against what was viewed as the growing encroachment of the North, especially with respect to Slavery. Campbell, known for his moderate views, prepared many of the resolutions adopted by the convention, which were conciliatory in nature and designed to avoid inflaming passions on the slavery issue.

Campbell was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1853 by President Franklin Pierce, the new Democratic president, after the Senate had previously refused to act on three candidates offered by the lame-duck president Millard Fillmore. The sitting justices of the Court had taken the unprecedented step of sending a delegation to the president to request that Campbell be nominated to the Court. Campbell, only forty-one at the time, was confirmed unanimously.

Campbell was, for the most part, a vigorous States' Rights advocate while on the Court. In his dissent in Dodge v. Woolsey, 59 U.S. 331, 18 How. 331, 15 L. Ed. 401 (1855), for example, he argued against the Court's extension of federal jurisdiction over state-chartered corporations. Campbell believed that state legislatures should regulate such matters. However, Campbell displayed somewhat more moderate views with respect to slavery. He opposed secession and argued that slavery would eventually disappear on its own and be replaced by free labor if the South were left undisturbed. Upon his appointment to the Court, he freed all his own slaves and then hired only free blacks as servants. But Campbell was nevertheless widely criticized for his views, especially by northern abolitionists, when he joined the majority of the Court in the controversial Dred Scott decision. In dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 19 How. 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (U.S. Mo. Dec. Term 1856), the Court held that blacks were not citizens of the United States, with the right to sue in federal court. In his concurring opinion, Campbell contended that the federal government had no choice but to recognize as property whatever the laws of the individual states determined to be property, including slaves.

In 1861, Campbell served as an unofficial mediator between the federal government and southern commissioners seeking a resolution to the conflict over secession and slavery. Secretary of State William H. Seward, acting through Campbell but without the authority of the president, promised that Fort Sumter, South Carolina, then occupied by federal troops, would be evacuated. When it was instead reinforced, Campbell was accused of treachery by the southern commissioners.

When the Civil War later broke out and Alabama seceded from the union, Campbell remained loyal to his home state and resigned from the Court in April 1861. After returning to the South, he was appointed assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy. When the Confederacy collapsed in 1865, he was named to the commission at the Hampton Roads peace conference, which was convened to help bring about peace between the North and South. The commission failed to reach any agreement. Campbell again attempted to intervene to bring about peace, this time through a private meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, which resulted in an order allowing the Virginia legislature to convene to consider Lincoln's terms for reconstruction. Within a few days the South surrendered and Lincoln withdrew his approval of the meeting, claiming that Campbell had misconstrued the terms of the plan. After Lincoln's assassination Campbell was accused of Treason and imprisoned for several months.

Virtually all Campbell's property and belongings in Alabama were destroyed during the war and after his release from prison he faced the prospect of starting over. He decided to settle in New Orleans, where he soon established another successful law practice along with a nationally renowned private law library. He appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in a number of significant cases, including the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 16 Wall. 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1872). In the Slaughter-House cases, the Court considered the legality of a statute that granted a corporation chartered by the state of Louisiana the exclusive right to maintain within New Orleans all butcher shops, slaughter pens, stockyards, and stables. Campbell, though previously known for favoring the rights of states, argued that the law created a Monopoly in violation of the recently adopted Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The Court, in construing the Fourteenth Amendment for the first time in its history, narrowly rejected Campbell's argument in a 5–4 decision that would be reversed twenty years later.

Campbell continued to practice law for another quarter century before withdrawing to a reclusive retirement in New Orleans. He died in 1889 at the age of seventy-seven.

Further readings

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.

Saunders, Robert, Jr. 1997. John Archibald Campbell, Southern Moderate, 1811-1889. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press.

Swisher, Carl B. 1974. The Taney Period, 1836–64. Vol. 5 of History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan.