Law Matters: Hamilton Gamble Shaped History as Supreme Court Judge, Civil War Governor
Content date: 12/22/2006
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Michael A.
Wolff make up his December 2006 Law
Missouri was as profoundly affected by the Civil War as any state. The 1857 United States Supreme Court case of a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, crystallized the struggle over slavery leading up to the Civil War four years later. The secession of southern states to form the Confederate States of America split Missourians between those who wished to leave the Union and those who were loyal to the Union.
Astride this split was an interesting man, Hamilton R. Gamble, a judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri and, during the Civil War, Missouri’s provisional governor. Gamble was the subject of a recently published biography, Lincoln’s Resolute Unionist, by Dennis K. Boman (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). The highlights of Boman’s fine book are worth recounting.
Several years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal decision, Dred Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri state court in St. Louis. After two jury trials, the St. Louis circuit court entered judgment in favor of Scott – who had traveled with his master to free territory – holding that he was no longer a slave. The master’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri was heard by the court’s three judges, including Judge Gamble, who recently had been elected as a judge of the court.
An interesting sidelight of the case and its era is that Missouri, by constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1848, switched from having the governor appoint judges, with senate confirmation, to electing judges on partisan ballots. The constitutional change was initiated, in part, by those who wished to dislodge judges appointed by Democratic governors. Gamble, a Whig party member, ran for the judicial position on the Supreme Court after being requested to do so by 150 of the 159 lawyers then practicing in St. Louis. He agreed to be a candidate but declined to run on a party label. He felt duty-bound to make himself available, but he refused to campaign for the office. He was elected by a landslide without campaigning.
When the appeal of the Dred Scott decision came before the Supreme Court of Missouri, the court reversed years of precedent – prior cases held that a slave taken to free territory was no longer a slave. Judge Gamble, himself a slaveholder, dissented, saying that the court should follow prior law and recognize Scott’s freedom. Addressing the “temporary public excitement” over the issue of slavery that undoubtedly would cloud people’s judgment, Gamble said: “Times may have changed, public feeling may have changed, but principles have not and do not change; and, in my judgment, there can be no safe basis for judicial decision, but in those principles which are immutable.”
Gamble resigned from the court, mostly for financial reasons, to reenter private practice in 1854.
After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, there was extraordinary agitation for Missouri to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Missouri’s newly elected governor, Claiborne F. Jackson, a Democrat, on New Year’s Day in 1861 called for a state convention to determine whether Missouri would remain in the Union.
Gamble was a delegate to the state convention, and he argued strenuously for Missouri to remain loyal to the Union.
After Missouri’s decision not to secede from the Union, Governor Jackson and other Confederate sympathizers fled the state to Texas. The convention elected Hamilton Gamble as provisional governor. He served during the Civil War, traveling at various times to Washington to consult with President Lincoln. Among the issues he discussed with Lincoln were plans to end slavery in Missouri. It should be noted that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, applied only in those states that had seceded from the Union. Missouri was unaffected by Lincoln’s proclamation.
Gamble died in 1864 before the end of the war. Slavery did not end in Missouri until after the war, when the 13th Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1866. Gamble’s loyalty to the Union, as governor during most of the Civil War, was of great strategic significance to the Union cause.
Missouri’s Civil War history is worthy of study. This crisis of profound turmoil and violence, the worst in the history of our state and nation, did much to affect the culture and politics of our state from that time forward. Hamilton Gamble, as judge and as governor, was a central part of that history.
For discussion questions for classrooms and civic groups, please go to www.mobar.org under the Educators