Campbell was born near Washington, Georgia, to Col. Duncan Greene Campbell (for whom the now-defunct Campbell County, Georgia was named). Considered a child prodigy, he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1825 at the age of 14, and attended the United States Military Academy for three years, but withdrew upon the death of his father and returned home to Georgia. He read law with former Georgia governor John Clark, and was admitted to the bar in 1829, at the age of 18 (this required a special act of the Georgia legislature).
Campbell later moved to Alabama, establishing a practice in Montgomery. There he married Anne Goldthwaite and, in 1836, was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives. In 1839 he moved to Mobile and resumed private practice, but was elected again to the state legislature in 1843. Campbell was twice offered appointment to the Alabama Supreme Court, but declined on both occasions.
In 1852 the death of John McKinley created a vacancy on the Supreme Court. President Millard Fillmore, a Whig, made three nominations to fill the vacancy, all of whom were denied confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate. After the election of Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, a group of sitting Supreme Court justices approached Pierce to recommend Campbell as a nominee; this is one of the few times sitting justices have made recommendations for new nominations. Pierce, who was hoping to stave off insurrection by appeasing the South, agreed to nominate the Alabaman Campbell, and he was approved by the Senate in March of 1853.
Campbell strongly opposed secession, and in early 1861 served as a mediator between William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, and the three Confederate commissioners Martin Crawford, Andre Roman, and John Forsyth, Jr.. Campbell had been instructed that the Lincoln administration's policy was for peace and reconciliation, not war, but during the meetings Campbell learned that the U.S. government was reinforcing Fort Sumter and had requested 75,000 volunteers, and Campbell decided that he had been lied to.
Facing this, Campbell resigned from the Court on April 30, 1861, and returned to Alabama. A year later he was named Assistant Secretary of War by Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a position he held through the end of the war. After the fall of Richmond in 1865, Campbell was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, in Georgia, for six months. After his release, he was reconciled and resumed his law practice in New Orleans, Louisiana. In this private practice he argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court including the Slaughterhouse Cases and a number of other cases designed to obstruct Radical Reconstruction in the South.
Campbell served only eight years on the Supreme Court, though he remained in good health until his death in 1889 and could have served on the court for many years had the Civil War not intervened. He was regarded as a brilliant jurist.
Michael A. Ross, "Obstructing Reconstruction: John A. Campbell and the Legal Campaign against Reconstruction in New Orleans, 1868-1873," Civil War History, 49(September 2003): 235-253.
Obstructing Reconstruction: John Archibald Campbell and the Legal Campaign against Louisiana's Republican Government, 1868-1873
Sep 01, 2003; Historians of Reconstruction have long debated why it was that the Republican Reconstruction governments had such limited success...
The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth Amendment/ The Fourteenth Amendment and the Law of the Constitution
Nov 01, 2005; The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth Amendment. By Ronald M. Labbé and Jonathan Lurie....