Academic journal article Civil War History

Obstructing Reconstruction: John Archibald Campbell and the Legal Campaign against Louisiana's Republican Government, 1868-1873

Academic journal article Civil War History

Obstructing Reconstruction: John Archibald Campbell and the Legal Campaign against Louisiana's Republican Government, 1868-1873

Article excerpt

Historians of Reconstruction have long debated why it was that the Republican Reconstruction governments had such limited success with their efforts to bring a new political, economic, and social order to the American South during the years 1868 to 1877, Although almost all historians agree that a combination of political, economic, and social factors caused the relatively swift collapse of the Reconstruction regimes, they have differed in their emphasis as to the primary cause or causes of the Republicans' failure. Some scholars have emphasized the internal weaknesses within the Reconstruction governments themselves. These historians point to factionalism; patronage squabbles; fiscal policy disagreements; and regional, racial, and class differences that undermined Southern Republicans' ability to govern effectively and eroded their support in the North. While historians who favor this interpretation do not discount the impact that violent resistance by reactionary white Southerners had on the Republican regimes, they suggest that the violence simply sped the demise of governments that had fatal internal flaws. (1) Other scholars, however, have given greater emphasis to the debilitating effects that the violent acts of white paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia had on the Republican governments and their supporters. (2)

Events in Louisiana during Reconstruction have provided proponents of both of these interpretations with some of their strongest evidence. The ferocious factional struggles that took place among Louisiana's Republican leadership were arguably the most debilitating intraparty feuds of any that occurred in the South during the period. Scholars who have waded into this vexing political morass have uniformly concluded that the "desperate struggles that pitted Radical against Radical" played a central role in the Republicans' downfall in the state. (3) But it is also true that Louisiana experienced some of the Reconstruction era's worst reactionary violence, and any study of the Republicans' failure in the state would he incomplete without a discussion of the legendary street battles and race riots that took place in New Orleans, as well as the politically and racially motivated massacres that occurred in smaller towns such as Colfax and Coushatta. (4)

Revisiting the history of Reconstruction in Louisiana suggests that there was yet another factor that helps explain the Republicans' failure in the state. Rather than focusing on the already well-chronicled accounts of violence and factionalism, this article looks to Louisiana's state and federal courts, where a cohort of Conservative New Orleans lawyers waged an extraordinarily effective legal campaign designed to obstruct the Reconstruction government. Led by former United States Supreme Court Justice and ex-Confederate John Archibald Campbell, this campaign impeded the centrist efforts of carpetbagger Governor Henry Clay Warmoth to build a viable Republican party in the state. Using legal briefs rather than guns, Campbell and his allies skillfully manipulated the judicial system in a manner that thwarted Reconstruction during the crucial initial years of Republican rule. Although their acts were nonviolent, their lawsuits supplemented and encouraged the actions of their more brutal counterparts in the Crescent City White League and the Knights of the White Camelia, eventually helping to spur the Republican infighting that occurred as frustrated party leaders turned against one another.

Campbell and his allies launched their reactionary legal campaign in response to the bold economic and political proposals announced by Governor Warmoth in 1868. Elected that spring, Warmoth was a twenty-six-year-old Union army veteran from Illinois who compensated for his inexperience with a combination of idealism, cunning, and exuberance. A zealous advocate of what one historian has called the Republicans' "gospel of prosperity," Warmoth believed he could win the hearts and minds of the state's moderate whites by offering a bold plan for reconstructing New Orleans and Louisiana that would have made his namesake, Senator Henry Clay, proud. …

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