When Dr. Robert Saunders sat down to write his book about Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell, he did so because he felt it was necessary.
Two decades after its publication, it’s still bringing newfound attention to one of the most important historical figures of the mid-19th century.
In October, Saunders was invited to speak in Mobile, Ala., to the Inns of Court, a professional organization of judges and seasoned attorneys, about his book, “John Archibald Campbell: Southern Moderate,” and the individual it profiled, an Alabama lawyer who became one of the nation’s most powerful and influential judges.
“This summer, (Troy University Board of Trustees member) Forrest Latta contacted me and said he had read my book and realized it was written by a TROY faculty member,” said Saunders, associate history professor and assistant dean of administration. “He invited me whenever I was in Mobile to come see him. I was very appreciative of that. (It) just so happened I was going to a conference in Mobile in October anyway, so I said, ‘Let’s get together for coffee.’ He wrote back, ‘Would you mind if it’s dinner and I invite some of my colleagues?’”
Those colleagues ended up being members of the Inns of Court during their annual banquet in the Crystal Ballroom of the Battle House Hotel, and Saunders delivered his speech about Campbell’s life and his importance as a moderate in a time of extreme political discord.
Campbell became Supreme Court Justice in 1853 and served through 1861, the outbreak of the Civil War, a war he opposed.
“Alabama seceded in January 1861, but he didn’t resign his position until May. He worked as a go-between in Washington between Confederate emissaries and the Lincoln Administration trying to prevent the outbreak of war,” Saunders said. “He resigned and came home only to find himself an outcast, because he was not a radical southerner or radical secessionist – he opposed secession, thought it was foolish and thought the South had no chance of winning independence. He wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Mobile that ended up in the Mobile press. Everyone knew his stance on secession. At one point, people were throwing stones at him in the street.”
Saunders’ interest in Campbell led to a desire to chronicle his life.
“My interest in Campbell well complemented my interest in southern antebellum history and the deepening sectional crisis of the 1850s,” Saunders said. “I began to research his life and career after I read his concurring-but-separate opinion in the Dred Scott decision. Like many southern moderates, Campbell has been overshadowed in history by the more radical voices of southern society who were at the time demanding immediate secession. Though he was often vilified in the northern press as a southern radical, Campbell was not a defender of slavery and he never was one of the so-called ‘fire eaters.’”
Saunders described his book’s journey since publication as somewhat typical of academic books.
“It sold well initially, and all major libraries have it,” Saunders said. “Like any academic book, it had a peak and then tapered off.”
He said books like his are published to serve a need, with sales being secondary to the overall purpose.
“You don’t publish academic books because they’re going to sell a lot, you publish them because they need to be published,” Saunders said. “It is unfortunate, but oftentimes when we write books and articles we are writing them for our colleagues, the community of historians. We use the information in class so it keeps all our classes up to date. Then, for whatever reason, a book pops back up on the radar and gets some attention, and it’s always especially gratifying. Campbell’s life deserves to be known. He was a major figure in the 19th century.”