William M. Harrison (1818–1900)
William M. Harrison was a Maryland-born lawyer who spent twelve years as an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in its most tempestuous days—helping to settle the state of the law and the social order during and after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Arkansans during that period lived under governments created by four state constitutions, the charters of 1836, 1864, 1868, and 1874, which created a jungle of legal issues. Harrison entered that era as a Republican politician opposing secession but mutated into a Democrat when the minority Republicans lost power. He was sometimes a lonely voice on the court advocating for not punishing people who had to live and transact business in a state that had seceded from the United States and abandoned U.S. currency.
William Mace Harrison was born on June 1, 1818, in the seaside village of Church Creek on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to Benjamin M. Harrison and Catherine Mace “Kitty” Harrison, who had emigrated from England. His father was a ship carpenter and farmer. One short biography said his parents were poor and that young William was crippled and sickly but, through private study, got a good education.
Harrison landed a job with a local merchant at the age of seventeen and followed his patron to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he worked for three years. In 1840, he moved to Columbia (Chicot County), where he taught for a year. He moved back home to Maryland and taught school until 1844 and then returned to Chicot County to teach and study law. He obtained his law license, and when Drew County was created in 1846, he moved to the village of Rough and Ready in what is now Monticello (Drew County) to practice law. Rough and Ready was the county seat, but the only remnant in the twenty-first century is a cemetery by that name in southern Monticello. He married Permelia Martha Fairchild in 1848. They would have six children.
In 1852, he was elected to a four-year term in the state Senate from Drew, Ashley, and Chicot counties but did not run again in 1856. He was a Whig, but the national party was disintegrating. In 1860, he ran for the House of Representatives, this time as a Republican, and at the tumultuous session that began in November after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, he cast a vote to stay in the union. (As the Arkansas Gazette reported on the day of his death in 1900, “when hot-headed politicians were threatening war with all its untold calamities,” eight were for staying in the union: he was one of them.)
Harrison did not run again in 1862 and disappeared from the political scene, although one short biography said he re-joined the ranks of the Republican Party at the war’s end. There is no record of his having joined the war effort on either side. He apparently devoted himself to his law practice at Monticello, to the extent that there was much law to practice during the early stages of the war and then Reconstruction. The courts hardly functioned.
In 1865, he was elected circuit judge of the Second Circuit and served through 1868, when he was elected associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He was still a Republican, but, as Reconstruction ended, he switched to the Democratic Party. By the time of his death in 1900 he had concluded that the state Republican leaders were crooked. Realistically, however, no politically ambitious politician would remain a Republican. Powell Clayton and then Elisha Baxter were the Republican governors during Reconstruction, a tumultuous era marked by the Brooks-Baxter War, a fight over who was the rightful governor. No Republicans were elected again to statewide office in Arkansas until 1966. Harrison was defeated for reelection in 1874 but was soon appointed to a seat on the expanded Supreme Court—from three to five members. He would serve until 1882.
His service on the Reconstruction (and Republican) Supreme Court was consequential in the court’s long history because the court had to settle seemingly insoluble issues raised by the state’s decision to leave the United States and join the treasonous Confederacy. The justices were called upon to settle disputes over the legal effect of earlier court decisions in the short-lived Confederate government and disputes over contracts during the Confederate era calling for payments in Confederate dollars, which by the war’s end was a currency with no value, and also whether all the contracts signed by people and businesses during that period were enforceable. Three times during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, the justices, including Harrison, were replaced wholesale.
In his well-researched historical account of the Supreme Court during that roughly twenty-year period, L. Scott Stafford of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law described Harrison as the least political and most principled of the justices.
One notable case was Latham v. Clark (1870), in which the Supreme Court of Republican Unionists held that contracts made during the years when the Confederate government still ran the state were, in effect, invalid. The court said the state government had issued Confederate money and conspired to commit treason against the United States. Harrison dissented. He argued that the majority failed to recognize that ordinary citizens had little choice but to accept Confederate dollars in contracts, because there were no U.S. dollars in existence in the state. He said his colleagues were wrong to rush to punish any person who had accepted a promise to pay or accept Confederate money. He agreed that issuing Confederate money was an illegal act, but he pointed out that Confederate money was the only circulating medium of exchange in the state and that people subject to the de facto control of the Confederate government had to use Confederate money in their business transactions. It was constitutionally and morally wrong, he argued, to punish people who had no choice in the matter.
Harrison moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in 1869 and lived there until his death on February 15, 1900, at the age of eighty-one. He is buried in Bellwood Cemetery at Pine Bluff.
For additional information:
“CLAIMED BY DEATH; Ex-Associate Justice W. M. Harrison Dies at Pine Bluff.” Arkansas Gazette, February 15, 1900, p. 2.
Stafford, L. Scott. “The Arkansas Supreme Court and the Aftermath of the Civil War.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 23 (2001): 355–407. Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/lawreview/vol23/iss2/2 (accessed October 21, 2023).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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