John Archibald Campbell (1811-1889) was one of the more influential members of Alabama society during the mid to late nineteenth century. His life reflects nearly every major event of the period in U.S. and Alabama history: suppression of the Creeks, slavery, abolitionism, the secession movement, and the Civil War. A talented lawyer, Campbell was appointed an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1853, where he helped decide the Dred Scott case in 1857.
John Archibald Campbell Campbell was born in Wilkes County, Georgia, on June 24, 1811, to Col. Duncan Greene Campbell and Mary Williamson and had one sister. Educated by private tutors, he excelled academically and was admitted to Franklin College of the University of Georgia at the age of 11. Soon after turning 18, Campbell was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, pursuing his ambition to be a professional officer. Campbell’s father died during his second year at the academy, however, and he was forced to return to Georgia to help support his mother and sister.
Campbell read law and contemplated settling in Key West, Florida, but instead relocated to Montgomery in March 1830 to establish a law practice. In 1836, Campbell courted and married Anne Goldthwaite, the younger sister of Henry Goldthwaite, one of Montgomery’s leading attorneys and rising politicians. Campbell joined Goldthwaite’s law firm and soon was representing in court some of the more influential citizens of central Alabama, including future Alabama governors Clement Comer Clay and Benjamin Fitzpatrick. Campbell also served one term as a state representative, but he quickly lost his taste for politics and the political infighting so prevalent in Tuscaloosa (at that time Alabama’s capital). Nonetheless, Campbell’s brief stint as a representative and his highly successful court record provided him with important political and professional contacts with politicians such as William Rufus King and Dixon Hall Lewis, and increased his contact with Fitzpatrick and Clay.
Conflicts with the Creeks
The 1830s in Alabama were in many respects the formative period of the state’s antebellum history, and Campbell played an important role in the escalating conflicts with the Creek Nation. By the spring of 1836, the Creeks who had thus far avoided removal from Alabama were in open war with settlers and militia, and Clay called up the state militia and requested federal troops in response. Clay appointed Campbell to serve as his aide-de-camp for the war, and Campbell organized the militia units then being summoned to bivouac in Tuskegee. With some Creek war parties reportedly gathering at Hatchechubbee, federal cavalry under U.S. Quartermaster General Thomas Jessup went to destroy the town.
Soon after, he was ordered away for a meeting with Gen. Winfield Scott, overall commander of the U.S. forces in the region. Campbell, the Alabama militia, and the cavalry troops were ordered to remain encamped until Jessup’s return. Just a few hours after Jesup departed, a small delegation of Creeks from Hatchechubbee entered the militia camp and informed Campbell that the Creek leaders in the village wished to discuss a settlement. Campbell and an interpreter were escorted into a meeting with Blind King, in which Campbell explained that further resistance was hopeless and that should the Creeks surrender, food, blankets, horses, and weapons would be provided to them. But Campbell insisted that they had to cease the resistance and agree to be relocated.
The following day Campbell accepted Blind King’s surrender and noted that the Creek party had few warriors, and the women, children, and elderly surrendering with Blind King were ill-clothed and ill-fed. Yet Campbell and the militia returned to Montgomery and were hailed as heroes for having subdued their “savage quarry.” Campbell was even credited with convincing the Creeks to surrender, when in reality he had merely explained to Blind King that surrender was the only alternative to complete slaughter.
Move to Mobile
In 1837, Campbell decided to move his family, which would soon include five daughters and one son, to Mobile, where he was enmeshed in settling innumerable disputes between multinational litigants over claims to Mobile’s harbor. Both the United States and Spain had claimed ownership of Mobile, and both governments had issued land grants to various citizens. The result, however, was that much of the land in and around Mobile had multiple owners. Hundreds of these disputes had to be settled in court, and Campbell rose to prominence at the Mobile bar by specializing in these cases. His success brought him to the attention of many of the state’s leading politicians, and he was widely recognized as one of the South’s best attorneys. Campbell’s lucrative law practice allowed him to invest in other ventures, including cotton warehouses and orange orchards, in which he used enslaved labor.
Although Campbell owned several enslaved people for a few years in the 1840s, he was no defender of the institution of slavery. Campbell asserted that slavery was a tremendous burden on the South that stunted the region’s economic and commercial growth. He hoped that the institution would gradually disappear. His ambivalence toward slavery, however, did not diminish his support of the South; he strongly believed that radical northern abolitionists working through the federal government sought the absolute destruction of the South’s economy and society. Campbell remained a fierce defender of states’ rights, convinced that the federal government’s ever-expanding authority undermined his view of the federal-state relationship established by the founders, yet he never advocated radical or violent measures.
Campbell was chosen as one of eight delegates to represent Alabama at the Nashville Convention of 1850, a southern protest largely directed against the admission of California as a free state and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. Both of these events were part of the Compromise of 1850, interpreted by radical southerners as a clear indication that the South had lost most of its influence in national politics. Southern radicals, including Alabama’s leading supporter of slavery and states’ rights, William Lowndes Yancey, urged immediate secession as the only proper remedy to southern grievances with national events.
Although many southern radicals argued for a forceful response that threatened to destroy the Union, Campbell appealed to members of the Nashville Convention for moderation; the crisis, he argued was not as severe as the radicals argued, and he could see no reason to destroy the Union over perceived anti-southern provisions of the Compromise of 1850. Through his influence, the convention adopted a moderate petition expressing southern concerns but avoided ultimatums or threats of secession. Campbell’s participation in the convention thus reinforced the general perception of him as a level-headed moderate from a region with a growing number of hot-headed radicals and fire-eaters, a term used to refer to radical southerners who supported the concept of the southern states seceding from the United States. Admitted to the federal bar in 1849, Campbell brought 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during the next three years. Although he lost seven, his arguments so impressed the court that when a vacancy opened with the death of John McKinley in 1852, Chief Justice Roger Taney recommended that Campbell be chosen for the vacant seat. Pres. Franklin Pierce sent Campbell’s nomination to the Senate, which confirmed his appointment unanimously.
Tenure in the U.S. Supreme Court
Campbell’s tenure as an associate justice from 1853 to 1861 was relatively brief but nonetheless memorable. He defended state authority in most cases involving conflicting state and federal laws, but he likewise upheld federal authority when it was clearly authorized by the Constitution. The most famous case in which Campbell was involved concerned the slave Dred Scott and his suit for freedom. In 1857, the court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that enslaved people or their descendants were not citizens and could not sue in courts and that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the territories. The Dred Scott decision is considered by many historians to be one of the leading causes of the Civil War. It was interpreted by many northerners as evidence of a “slave power conspiracy” led by the southern members of the court and designed to make slavery national and eliminate any chance of the federal government abolishing the institution. Campbell joined with the majority to deny Scott’s petition, but he felt so strongly about the issues involved in the case that he submitted a separate but concurring opinion. Campbell asserted that the Missouri Compromise Line was unconstitutional because it violated southerners’ citizenship and property rights by denying them the ability to transport their “property” (that is, slaves) anywhere within the boundaries of the United States. Campbell further asserted that other precedents establishing federal authority to limit the expansion of slavery—such as the Northwest Ordinance—were similarly unconstitutional and should be nullified by the court.
Secession and Civil War
When southern states seceded from the Union beginning in December 1860, Campbell initially advised caution and cooperation and attempted to mediate an armed clash between the North and South. Unsuccessful in the role of peacekeeper, Campbell resigned from the Supreme Court in May 1861 and accepted a position within the Confederate government as the assistant secretary of war, a post he held until the evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, but he provided little leadership regarding military operations during his tenure. He did, however, attend the February 1865 Hampton Roads Conference in which Pres. Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward met with Confederate Vice Pres. Alexander Stephens, Sen. Robert M. T. Hunter, and Campbell to discuss a peace agreement. Pres. Jefferson Davis refused Lincoln’s terms and the war continued for another three months. Like other high-ranking Confederate officials, Campbell was imprisoned after the war at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, from May to October 1865.
After his release, Campbell resided in New Orleans, where he was again recognized as one of the nation’s most competent attorneys. His practice became so busy that by the early 1870s he argued only cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Of Campbell’s many important cases during Reconstruction, the two most significant were the Slaughterhouse Cases (U.S. 1873) and United States v. Cruikshank (U.S. 1875) in which Campbell sought to have the Court rule that the civil rights provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution were equally applicable to all U.S. citizens. Campbell moved to his daughter’s Baltimore residence in the early 1870s to reduce the time that he spent traveling to Washington, D.C. Although suffering from failing health, he continued arguing before the Supreme Court until 1886, when he retired. Campbell died in Baltimore on March 12, 1889, and was buried in Green Mount Cemetery in that city.
- Connor, Henry Groves. John Archibald Campbell, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, 1853-1861. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.
- Duncan, George W. “John Archibald Campbell.” In Studies in Southern and History, edited by George Petrie, pp. 7-52. Vol. 5 of Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Historical Society, 1905.
- McPherson, James P. “The Career of John Archibald Campbell: A Study of Politics and the Law.” Alabama Review 19 (January 1966): 53-63.
- Saunders, Robert. John Archibald Campbell: Southern Moderate, 1811-1889. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.