Freeman Walker Compton (1824–1893)
Freeman W. Compton was an eighteenth-century lawyer from North Carolina who moved to Arkansas and, with his wife’s dowry, acquired a large plantation in Dallas County. He then spent the four years of the Civil War and more as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. The war had a turbulent effect on both his private life and his jurisprudence. While he was on the Supreme Court but living on his plantation ninety miles away from his office in the state’s temporary capital in Hempstead County, Compton escaped capture by the Federal cavalry by hiding for several days in the attic of the only hotel in the nearby town of Princeton (Dallas County). He was disfranchised and booted from the Supreme Court in 1868 by the Reconstruction government owing to his past loyalty to the Confederacy. In 1871, Compton moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) and established a law practice with his son, William A. Compton, until the judge’s death in 1893.
Freeman Walker Compton was born on January 15, 1824, in Orange County, North Carolina, to Alfred Compton and Sara Lea Compton. His father was an Englishman and a British officer during America’s revolutionary period. Biographies described Compton’s education as including instruction in the Latin classics by a private tutor. He studied at a law school at Maxville, North Carolina, led sometimes by Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Pearson, a pro-Union Whig politician, was elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1848 and even during the Civil War did not hide his Unionist sympathies, frequently ruling against North Carolina’s Confederate government on issues such as exemption from conscription and habeas corpus. Compton, however, was cut from a different cloth.
Compton further studied law at Litchfield, Connecticut, and was admitted to the bar when he was twenty years old. He settled in Greenville in eastern Tennessee, the home of the future president Andrew Johnson, and practiced law there until 1849, when he moved to Princeton. In 1851, he married Susan Frances Lea, also of North Carolina; they had four children. They briefly moved to Camden (Ouachita County), and then, using money from his wife’s dowry, he acquired a plantation at Princeton but continued to practice law.
In 1857, Governor Elias Conway appointed him a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court as a master in a number of lawsuits that arose over the federal government’s giving the state jurisdiction to reclaim swamp and overflowed land, to sell the lands and then use the proceeds to construct levees and drains. The state sold the lands under a statute that said the lands could not be taxed for ten years but then later sought to tax the lands, which led to many legal disputes over the impairment of contracts.
John Hallum’s description of Compton in his 1887 biographical book on major Arkansas historical figures said Compton’s opinions in the swampland cases attracted the attention of the state bar and the Arkansas General Assembly. When Felix I. Batson, a newly elected justice of the Supreme Court, resigned in 1859, the legislature elected Compton to fill the vacancy until the next election over another candidate, Hulbert F. Fairchild, who shortly would be appointed to one of the other two seats on the court. Hallum said Compton was admired for refusing to come to Little Rock to campaign for the seat on the grounds that politicking for a judicial seat should be a disqualification for a position that was supposed to be above politics.
Otherwise, Hallum was not altogether complimentary of Compton, describing him as a lawyer “three hundred pounds avoirdupois” who was prone to “pacing the chamber to and fro” during proceedings. Years later, when Compton had left the court and was practicing law in Little Rock, Hallum wrote: “He has a large, well-developed brain, but is sometimes inert, perhaps lazy, and like all big guns or ships has to be put or towed into position before…he displays great ability. He is social with his brothers of the bar and has an inexhaustible fund of anecdote.”
Like his fellow justice Hulbert Fairchild, who was appointed to a vacancy in 1859, Compton faced uncertainty, turmoil, and emotional and physical perils until his time on the bench came to an end in 1866, when a Union military commander removed him from the bench for his Confederate ties.
When Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861, the Arkansas Supreme Court justices were given forty-eight hours to take an oath swearing allegiance to the Confederacy and Confederate constitutions and disavowing forever any allegiance to the United States and the federal Constitution. All three did, although Compton, who was at his plantation, was allowed to take the oath later in the office of the Dallas County circuit clerk. While the war and quick federal military control of much of the state shackled the courts, including the appellate court, and left them with little to do much of the time until after the war’s end, the Supreme Court had to deal with a number of legal disputes arising from laws enacted by the legislature and governor, before and after secession, to restrain slaves and prohibit their emancipation.
For instance, in Phebe, et al. v. Quillim, et al. (l860), the court upheld a statute that made it illegal to grant freedom to any slave. A Union County man had left a will freeing his slaves upon his death, which was legal under the state’s original constitution, but after the man’s death in 1853 the legislature enacted a law prohibiting emancipation of any slave. The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Fairchild, carried language that seemed at times to be sympathetic to emancipation but ended by concluding that “a change from the condition of servitude and protection, to that of being free negroes, is injurious to the community, and more unfortunate to the emancipated negro than to any one else.”
In another decision, Ewell v. Tidwell (1859), this one written by Compton, the court overturned a will under which free Blacks would have inherited slaves: “The ownership of slaves by free negroes is directly opposed to the principles upon which slavery exists among us,” Compton wrote.
By late 1862, Union forces controlled much of Arkansas, and the courts, especially in those regions, often ceased to function. As forces converged on Little Rock, the government moved to Washington (Hempstead County). Few cases reached the Supreme Court, and when the court held regular sessions, justices frequently were absent, especially Compton, who spent most of his time at his plantation at Princeton. It left the judging to Fairchild and Chief Justice Elbert H. English. Fairchild, whose Confederate sympathies were known to be shaky, grew increasingly disturbed, particularly for the family he had left in the opposite corner of the state in territory controlled by Federal forces. When Fairchild resigned on November 25, 1863, and left for Batesville (Independence County) in Union-occupied territory, Albert Pike was appointed to his seat, but Pike, Compton, and English settled only a few cases every term. Compton stayed on his plantation most of the time. When the Union cavalry advanced on Princeton in April 1864, Compton hid in the attic of the town’s hotel until the cavalry had left for Little Rock.
His casual approach to adjudicating might be best represented by a letter he wrote to Governor Harris Flanagin in February 1864: “So soon as I can get through some necessary arrangements I will be at Washington. Don’t know how soon I’ll be compelled to leave court and remain away. I know not how long. I find it difficult to get off. Make my compliments to Judge English. I say, never mind the court.”
Compton abandoned his seat in 1864 but then was elected in 1866, after the war’s end, to the seat formerly held by Fairchild and Pike. In 1868, the Reconstruction government ousted him from the court for his Confederate sympathies.
In 1871, Compton brought his family to Little Rock to open a law practice with his son, who would later be elected to one term in the Arkansas House of Representatives. They acquired a house on Ninth Street in November, but his wife died a few days after they moved in. Governor Augustus Garland would appoint him in 1874 to fill a brief vacancy on the court.
Compton died on May 30, 1893. He is buried in Oakland and Fraternal Cemetery Park in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Hallum, John. Biographical and Pictorial History of Arkansas, Vol 1. Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1887.
Hempstead, Fay. Historical Review of Arkansas: Its Commerce, Industry and Modern Affairs, Vol. 1. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1911.
Stafford, Logan Scott. “The Arkansas Supreme Court and the Civil War.” Journal of Southern Legal History 37 (1999): 37–114. Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/faculty_scholarship/215/ (accessed February 16, 2023).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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