Campbell was educated in Athens, Georgia and received an appointment to West Point from Senator John C. Calhoun. He left West Point due to the death of his father. From there he came to Montgomery, Alabama, studied law, and was admitted to the Bar of Alabama in 1830. He was not yet 20 years old. Campbell practiced law in Montgomery until 1837 when he moved to Mobile. He was involved in the civic life of every place where he lived and he served in the state legislature representing Montgomery County from 1836 to 1837 and representing Mobile County from 1842 to 1843.
In 1852 Campbell declined appointment to a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. But on March 22, 1853 he became a member of the United States Supreme Court, being appointed by President Franklin Pierce. It is interesting to note that Justice Campbell carried on the tradition of an “Alabama” seat on the Supreme Court by replacing Justice John McKinley, also from Alabama, who served on the Court from 1837 to 1852. At this same time, William Rufus King of Alabama, and a previous inductee to the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame, was Vice-President of the United States.
Campbell was a Supreme Court Justice during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. Having been born in the South and having lived in the South, he resigned from the Supreme Court on May 1, 1861 to return to the South. Prior to his resignation he served as an informal mediator between the Confederate government and Federal authorities in March and April 1861.
After leaving the Court he served as Confederate Assistant Secretary of War from October 1862 to the end of the war. In 1865, Campbell and others met with President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward at Hampton Roads, Virginia in a secret attempt to end the war. This effort failed and Lincoln’s assassination ended all hope for a lenient reconstruction.
Following the war, Campbell was imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, Georgia for six months. After his release, he resumed the practice of law in Alabama and Louisiana, relocating to New Orleans in 1866. He appeared before the United States Supreme Court in the famous Slaughterhouse Cases that arose in New Orleans and he was involved in lawsuits by New Hampshire and New York against the state of Louisiana. In 1877 he was one of Samuel Tilden’s attorneys before the Electoral Commission which decided the presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes. In his later years he resided in Baltimore where he died on March 13, 1889.John Archibald Campbell is remembered as an able judge, a successful lawyer, and an outstanding public man of his time. He is today honored as a member of the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame.