- The Union on Trial: The Political Journals of Judge William Barclay Napton, 1829–1883
The Union on Trial offers a fascinating perspective into the Civil War era from the view of Judge William Napton, a Northerner who became a Southerner, who then moved to and spent the rest of his life in Missouri, arguably the most divided of the border states. During his legal career in Missouri, Napton played a central role in the state's politics, often in matters that had national consequence. The broad [End Page 92] scope of years covered by his diaries shows the Civil War in the perspective of one who witnessed the events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the difficult aftermath. Editors Christopher Phillips and Jason L. Pendleton are to be commended for making these diaries accessible to readers, for Napton's thoughtful observations about state and national affairs deserve a wider audience.
William Barclay Napton was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1808. His father was a tailor, whose business failed while the young Napton was studying law after college, forcing him to end his studies. Embarrassed by his father, Napton headed to Virginia to work as a tutor and eventually completed his law studies at the University of Virginia. By this time he was determined to remake himself into a Southern gentleman like those he had met in the South. He turned his back on his Northern upbringing and embraced the Jeffersonian ideal as true Americanism. By the time he headed for Missouri, Napton considered himself a Virginian.
In Missouri Napton worked as a lawyer and then was elected a judge. He bought land and slaves and modeled his estate, "Elkhill," after those he had seen in Virginia. As a judge, he drafted what became known as the "Jackson Resolutions," which were attributed to upstart Missouri legislator Claiborne Fox Jackson and were instrumental in the campaign that marked the end of Thomas Hart Benton's thirty-year Senate career. Napton was firmly in the "anti-Benton" faction of the Missouri Democratic party and staunchly proslavery.
Napton kept a diary starting in 1829, when he entered the University of Virginia. In 1851 he addressed rumblings he had heard about "the abstract right of secession," and he direly predicted that if "the federal government undertakes to subdue the seceding state or states by force of arms, there will be virtually an end of the Union" (97). The sectional conflict was coming closer and closer to home, and Napton wrote extensively about the crisis in Kansas, vowing that "if Kansas is made a free state war will ensue" (142).
With Napton's keen mind and scathing honesty in his diaries, the reader with an interest in the Civil War, particularly the Civil War in Missouri, looks forward to his commentary about the outbreak of the war in such a divided state. Regrettably, Napton's diary from late 1857 to late 1862 no longer exists. Southerner-by-choice and secession supporter Napton (his two eldest sons joined the Confederate army) buried that volume of his diary on his farm during the war, fearing that its contents might condemn him as a traitor. The diary was damaged by water, which Napton duly reported in a later diary entry when he went to retrieve the earlier volume.
Napton's perspective is particularly interesting after the war, when he details in his diary exactly how he modified the required loyalty oath to reflect [End Page 93] his beliefs, basically stating that he took the oath only in order to be allowed to resume his legal practice (243). He makes interesting observations comparing Missouri after the Civil War to Germany after the Thirty Years' War (227–28). It is also bittersweet to read his reflections about a statue honoring his old nemesis, Thomas Hart Benton—he admits that he never liked Benton but grouses that the statue looks nothing like him (320–21).
A Northern tailor's son, Napton...