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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 479


This is the grave of the traitor John Archibald Campbell.

Born in 1811 near Washington, Georgia, Campbell grew up elite and was very intelligent. He graduated from the University of Georgia when he was only 14 years old. He went to West Point, where he got involved in Eggnog Riot, where alcohol was brought into the academy against the rules. Several cadets were expelled for this, but Campbell (as well as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee) were not severely punished. However, Campbell left the academy anyway when his father died in 1828. Instead of a military career, he would go into the law. He was admitted to the bar in 1829, only 18 years of age.

Campbell established his practice in Montgomery, Alabama, where he became an expert in land disputes. He fought in the Creek War in 1836, part of the broader genocidal campaigns in the South at that time. Since white people were pro-genocide, he parlayed that into the state legislature soon after. His political positions were that of a Jacksonian Democrat–anti-bank, anti-tariff. He was relatively moderate on nullification, but sympathetic to the positions of John C. Calhoun and the South Carolina extremists, if not necessarily agreeing with them. However, he left the state legislature after only one term and moved to Mobile.

In Mobile, Campbell became the lawyer of choice for the growing states’ rights reactionaries. He was a generally a moderate on slavery personally, at least compared to the fireeaters–he was an urban guy and so had no need for huge numbers of slaves, but certainly had them, yet also sometimes freed them and was an advocate for gradual emancipation so long as it was the choice of the owner–but he was absolutely opposed to any federal involvement in slavery or anything else. He began articulating his doctrine of original sovereignty in 1849 that stated that all states were equal to those of the original 13 before the Constitution was created and thus entered the nation on equal terms as those states. In the original case, that meant that Alabama had sovereignty over its navigable waters, not the federal government, but of course this could be applied to anything. This made him a rising star in the anti-federal government movement. He began arguing cases before the Supreme Court, often in opposition to centralizing banking. He also played a sizable role in working out the compromises that led to the Compromise of 1850, which forestalled secession but also laid the groundwork for the Civil War. Campbell was absolutely opposed to free soil and believed the states had full control over slavery within their borders.

All of this led Campbell to be tapped by the doughface Franklin Pierce for the Supreme Court in 1853, to replace the deceased John McKinley. He did so at the request of the other southern Supreme Court justices who advocated for him and as a sop to the South, which Pierce was always inclined to do anyway. He was however unanimously approved, because northerners hoped that his moderate reputation would rein in the radicals. But no, not really. He opposed the Taney Court’s general move toward giving citizenship rights to corporations on the grounds that if they could do that, they could give citizenship rights to slaves. For him, the old anti-bank ideas of Andrew Jackson connected straight to how to protect slavery. He consistently ruled against corporate rights in his time, putting him in the minority, as Taney found a way to be pro-slavery and pro-corporation, by and large.

In Dred Scott however, they basically agreed. Campbell wasn’t quite comfortable going as far as Taney in making universal pronouncements about the status of slaves, but believed the Founders had never intended to regulate slavery in the territories and believed that states should decide all of these things, and ultimately territories too. Still, he wasn’t quite the hack that the South really wanted. For instance, he ruled against filibustering in a few cases as he presided over the Fifth Circuit, cracking down on yahoos trying to invade Cuba, Mexico, and Central America to bring slavery and American expansionism there. This angered the real extremists.

Campbell may not have been quite as extreme as some southerners, but he certainly hated the Republican Party, abolitionists, and everything about northern politics. He also strongly argued for state sovereignty. So when the South committed treason in defense of slavery in 1861, he was right there at the forefront. He did help with the commissions trying to “compromise” with Abraham Lincoln when he was president-elect, which can be boiled down to “give us everything we want and maybe we won’t secede right now but will probably secede pretty soon.” Lincoln of course rejected all of this outright. Campbell resigned from the Court on April 30, 1861 and returned to the South. There, Jefferson Davis named him Assistant Secretary of War in October 1862, where he oversaw conscription. Widely despised through the South, the Confederate draft put the lie to the supposed states’ rights principles of someone such as Campbell, which ended precisely at the point where they no longer merged with the interests of the southern elite. It is worth noting though that the more extreme Confederates criticized Campbell for not doing more to ensure conscription. He was also one of the three Confederates who secretly met with Lincoln and William Seward at the Hampton Roads Conference, when the Confederates tried to negotiate a surrender while maintaining slavery and Lincoln and Seward told them to take a flying leap. Campbell realized he could never go along with this once Lincoln told them the South would have to recognize federal sovereignty over the states.

After the war, Campbell, like other leading Confederates, were briefly imprisoned. Unfortunately, Andrew Johnson–Lincoln’s biggest mistake by leaps and bounds–freed him and others soon after Lincoln’s death. He went back to New Orleans, started his law practice, and became a leading voice for resisting Reconstruction and any black rights. He quickly started arguing cases before the Supreme Court again, including the Slaughterhouse Cases and other cases that limited black rights. He spent more time in the Washington area as he aged and he became a senior legal figure. He should have been ostracized forever because of his treason in defense of slavery, but northern and southern whites reconciling over a shared love of white supremacy made Campbell a highly respected figure. He died in 1889.

John Archibald Campbell is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always thanks so much for keeping this series alive! If you would like this series to visit more Supreme Court justices of the Taney Court, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Wayne is in Savannah, Georgia and Taney himself is in Frederick, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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