Claiborne Fox Jackson was born in rural Fleming County, in northeastern Kentucky, on April 4, 1806. The son of Dempsey and Mary Pickett Jackson, prosperous tobacco farmers and slaveholders, Claiborne was one of ten children and received only slight formal education before moving west in 1826 with several older brothers to Franklin, Missouri, a small Howard County trading village just north of the Missouri River. Driven by ambition, he worked there briefly in the older brothers’ mercantile establishment before taking partnership in the business.
In 1832 Jackson organized and was elected captain of a company of Howard County volunteers to serve in the Black Hawk War. Upon his return to Missouri, he gave up his share of the brothers’ store and moved across the Missouri River to Saline County, where he purchased and operated a similar establishment. While there he met and married Mary Jane Breathitt Sappington, the daughter of John S. Sappington, a local physician who gained national prominence for his promotion of the use of quinine as a treatment for malarial fevers. Sappington, a wealthy slaveholder, proved an influential and well-connected presence, having personal acquaintances with such luminaries as Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton. By both his status and his efforts on his ambitious son-in-law’s behalf, Sappington provided Jackson with an important ingress into both the elite circles of central Missouri and, ultimately, the rough-and-tumble world of frontier Missouri politics. Twice widowed, Jackson would wed three of Sappington’s daughters.
Elected to the Missouri General Assembly as a Democrat in 1836, Jackson served one term before retiring to semiprivate life in Fayette, in Howard County, which was well known as a locus of power in Missouri state politics. During the next four years he worked at the State Bank of Missouri’s Fayette branch, making valuable personal connections and party alliances, as well as honing his political skills. In 1842, campaigning as an ardent supporter of Senator Benton, he was again elected to the state legislature and within two years was chosen Speaker of the House, an obvious position of influence that he would hold for two successive terms. Ultimately, he would serve with distinction in both houses of the Missouri legislature.
While leader of the General Assembly, Jackson allied with a powerful group of proslavery politicians known as the “Central Clique,” which was made up of delegates from the dense slaveholding counties around Fayette that exerted great influence over Missouri’s political fortunes. When Benton, the state’s Democratic bellwether, showed strong opposition to slavery’s extension into the western territories following the Mexican War, Jackson broke with him, publicly renouncing his Free-Soil efforts. In part, Benton’s opposition to Jackson’s candidacy for governor in 1848 promoted his openly hostile stance against “Old Bullion.” Jackson forced the issue when he was elected to the Missouri Senate in that same year.
Young and aggressive, Jackson and the other members of the Central Clique saw the emotional issue of slavery’s extension as a potential watershed for their own political careers. Seeing a chance to overturn the power structure of the Democratic Party—traditionally dominated by more moderate Bentonians—they leveraged the issue in the General Assembly. In 1848, led by Jackson, the anti-Benton faction introduced what became known as the Jackson Resolutions, which asserted that Congress had no authority to limit slavery in the territories, upholding the doctrine of popular sovereignty yet sanctioning the extension of a compromise line through the new territories in order to maintain future peace between slave and free states. The resolutions further included a set of instructions to the state’s senators (elected by the state legislature) and representatives in Washington to vote in favor of slavery’s extension into the territories.
Jackson, as spokesman for the Central Clique, condemned Benton’s failure to support the US Senate’s “Calhoun Resolutions,” introduced by South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun in 1847, asserting that the territories belonged to all the states and that the federal government could not enact laws that would deprive any state of their rights—specifically those prohibiting slavery. Although the Missouri General Assembly passed the Jackson Resolutions overwhelmingly, Benton refused to heed them, which forced him to defend his controversial stance. The furor cost Benton his reelection in 1850, ending his thirty-year tenure in the US Senate, but greatly enhanced Jackson’s own political standing. Benton’s influence was nevertheless strong enough to prevent Jackson’s nomination for Congress both in 1853 and in 1855.
As a result, Jackson held no elected office during the 1850s, yet he maintained ample political ties within the Democratic Party. Despite his once-ardent defense of Southern rights, Jackson appears to have played politics to curry favor from all sides. In 1852, as chairman of the state Democratic Central Committee, he helped to arrange both Southern and Benton Democrats alternately on the party’s campaign slate. In 1857 he managed the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Robert Marcellus Stewart, who won the election as a moderate Democrat. In 1858 Jackson supported a moderate Whig in his campaign for Congress. His strategy appears to have succeeded in gaining his appointment as Missouri’s first state bank commissioner in 1857. While orchestrating the reorganization of the state’s banking system in response to the national panic, Jackson used the position as a rostrum from which to posture himself for various unsuccessful bids for public office. Generally supporting hard-money policy, he condemned the “bankable fund” system by which Missouri banks hoarded gold and circulated paper and vowed a return to specie payments. Yet during the panic of 1857 he supported paper money, drawing criticism from Jacksonian Democrats. One charged that “C. F. Jackson has dabbled with banks until he has made a fortune.”
Judging by the census returns, one can little doubt that Jackson’s personal fortunes did indeed grow during the 1850s, though probably not from graft as his critics charged. In 1850, with a family of seven, including five children between the ages of six and sixteen, he already boasted real property holdings in Howard County worth $10,000 and held twenty people as slaves. In 1856, at the death of his father-in-law, John Sappington, Jackson inherited a large portion of the estate, including the Sappington home in the Arrow Rock district of Saline County. As a result, in 1860 he owned real estate worth nearly $49,900 and held personal property valued at $71,500; the number of people he enslaved had grown to thirty-eight. Living now at Fox Castle, the Sappington plantation, Jackson listed himself for the first time as a farmer, as did two of his three adult sons who still resided with the family. Fourteen of the slaves were males between the ages of thirteen and fifty-three, indicating that they were field hands, which suggests that Jackson operated a substantial plantation and had advanced into the ranks of the planter elite. His actions in the ensuing years demonstrate that he intended to preserve his newfound status.
Stymied in his attempts to gain election to Congress, Jackson began actively campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the gubernatorial election of 1860. Although he remained staunchly supportive of Southern rights, his recent moderate stance earned him more broad-based support, and though he was viewed as a dark horse among the nine declared candidates at the outset of the April 1860 convention, Jackson drew strength from uninstructed delegates, many of whom were sympathetic to the Southern cause. Winning the nomination on the fourth ballot, he sought to achieve the unity of a long-divided party by not declaring for either of the Democratic presidential candidates, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge.
As Jackson stumped the state, leaders of the state’s two Democratic factions confronted him about his nonsupport of either presidential candidate. Forced to declare one or the other or lose the support of both, Jackson again sought neutral ground. At Fayette (the final stop on his canvass), he claimed personal support of Breckinridge but conceded that Douglas was the party’s best hope for the presidency, and though he strongly disagreed with the Illinoisan’s stance on slavery in the territories, he came out for Douglas. In August Jackson won a narrow victory over Constitutional Unionist Sample Orr and two other candidates, receiving 74,446 votes to Orr’s 66,583. The two “moderate” candidates polled nearly 90 percent of the state’s popular vote. Similarly, in November, in the presidential election, Douglas won a narrow victory over John Bell in Missouri; again, the state supported moderate candidates rather than those viewed as being either secessionist or “Black Republican.”
With Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory in 1860, Jackson’s moderate stance changed abruptly. Believing the new federal government to be firmly opposed to slavery’s extension and hostile to Southern rights, Jackson in his January 1861 inaugural address defended the actions of the seceded states, labeled Northern states as aggressors, and called on Missouri to “best consult her own interest, and the interest of the whole country, by a timely declaration of her determination to stand by her sister slaveholding states, in whose wrongs she participates, and with whose institutions and people she sympathizes.”
Politically, Jackson was too savvy to ignore the recent elections’ mandates for moderation, yet in his address he proposed a state convention, ostensibly to consider the issue of secession. Recognizing the unlikelihood of withdrawal, however, Jackson probably had other motives in calling for the convention. An astute judge of popular sentiment, he believed that most Missourians—even the delegates to the convention—would be so adamantly opposed to coercive measures that efforts on the part of the Lincoln administration to bring the seceded states back into the Union would play into his hands. Jackson probably intended for the convention to frame a debate on the issue of coercion—an issue that, by the very nature of the ensuing conflict, the federal, not the Confederate, government stood most likely to lose. As expected, the convention, which met in February (and to which not even one avowed secessionist delegate was elected), decided against seceding. Rather, after a long debate, it adopted resolutions calling for state neutrality, asserting that “at present, there was no adequate cause to impel Missouri to dissolve her connection with the Federal Union.” As Jackson had hoped, the convention made it clear that this stance could change if either of the belligerent governments should in any way use coercion on Missouri.
With secession not yet a dead issue, Jackson set about making clandestine preparations. At the same time that he called the state convention, he called for a general pro-Southern convention to determine a united course of action. He began organizing the state militia as authorized by the militia act of 1858, asked the legislature to pass a military bill designed to give the governor sweeping powers to arm the state, sent agents to the Confederate government to procure arms, and arranged for some of the militia to raid the federal arsenal at Liberty. The real prize, however, lay in St. Louis, where the state’s other arsenal housed the largest number of arms of any such storehouse in the slave states. Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand volunteers on April 15 in response to the firing on Fort Sumter bolstered Jackson’s efforts, and he fashioned a ringing retort to cull public support: “Your requisition in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on such an unholy crusade.” Collectively, he hoped that the call and response would rejuvenate the secession issue, and he wrote privately to the president of Arkansas’s state convention that Missouri would be ready to secede in thirty days.
Buoyed by the recent events, Jackson ordered the state militia to assemble on May 3 in encampments throughout Missouri. One such assemblage, located on the outskirts of St. Louis and named “Camp Jackson” in his honor, received a shipment of ordnance (without carriages) confiscated by Confederates from the Baton Rouge arsenal and sent to St. Louis’s secessionists by authorities in Richmond. Although the guns were sent to assist in taking the arsenal, the gesture was now moot; radical Unionist Francis Preston Blair Jr., a US congressman, and Nathaniel Lyon, a volatile army captain in command at the arsenal, had already removed its large cache of weaponry to Illinois. On May 10, Lyon used federal troops to break up the encampment, capturing the militia and its officers and precipitating two days of rioting in St. Louis. In response, the legislature immediately passed Jackson’s long-debated military bill, dividing the state into military districts and authorizing enlistments for a State Guard. Jackson named Sterling Price, a military hero and former governor, as the commander of the state militia.
Reacting to Lyon and Blair’s strong moves in St. Louis, Jackson sent Price to St. Louis in late May to meet with the federal commander of the Department of the West, William Selby Harney, in an attempt to maintain peace in the agitated state. Jackson knew Price to be a moderate (he had chaired the state’s secession convention) and depended upon such temperance to present federal authority in the state as being coercive and thus move Missouri toward secession. The Price-Harney agreement, which stipulated that Harney would keep federal troops in St. Louis while Price preserved order in the interior counties, seemed to avoid conflict between state and federal troops. Jackson only reaffirmed the agreement by issuing a public letter appealing to the citizens of the state to respect civil authorities and refrain from hostile activities. When Harney was relieved of command on May 30, leaving Blair and Lyon in charge of more than ten thousand well-armed troops in St. Louis, as compared with just one thousand poorly armed State Guardsmen, an anxious Jackson sought to buy some time in order to avert potential hostilities. He issued another public letter upholding his personal commitment to neutrality and condemning the arming of troops in St. Louis as a violation of the Harney-Price agreement that should be opposed by the citizenry of the state. Secretly, he advised the district commanders of the State Guard to step up their recruitment and mobilization, hoping to renew the effort for Missouri’s secession now that radicals represented federal authority in the state.
At the urging of several of the state’s leading moderates, Jackson and Price requested a meeting with Blair and Lyon. Held on June 11 at the sumptuous Planters’ House hotel in St. Louis, the conference failed to effect any compromise. After four hours of heated debate, Lyon peremptorily ended the meeting by declaring war on the state. Believing that Missourians would now see the federal government as coercive aggressors and that a new secession convention would authorize withdrawal from the Union, Jackson hastened back to Jefferson City. On June 12 he issued a proclamation calling for fifty thousand men to defend the state and reminding the Missouri citizenry that though the state was still part of the Union, “the power to disturb that relation . . . has been wisely vested in a Convention which will, at the proper time, express your sovereign will.” However, Jackson was unprepared for the swiftness of the federal commanders’ next move. Within twenty-four hours of Jackson’s proclamation, Lyon had launched a river campaign that on June 16 captured Jefferson City, forcing Jackson and other pro-Southern legislators to flee the capital to nearby Boonville, where a large encampment of State Guardsmen had organized. When Lyon pursued, Jackson ordered the troops to give battle, against the advice of their commander, John Sappington Marmaduke. In a brief engagement, the federal troops easily routed the State Guard, sending them, led by Jackson, into headlong flight toward the southwestern corner of the state, where they pushed back a host of federals under Franz Sigel near Carthage before encamping at Cowskin Prairie.
Jackson soon left Missouri to secure support from the Confederate army and government. He convinced Leonidas Polk to send an “army of liberation” into southeastern Missouri, then hastened to Richmond, where he met with Jefferson Davis. When Davis promised financial aid for Missouri troops, Jackson returned to Missouri and on August 5 issued a proclamation from New Madrid declaring Missouri an independent and sovereign state—an act of doubtful legal validity. After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Jackson accompanied Price and his troops to Lexington, where he called the General Assembly to convene in special session in Neosho in October 1861. Bringing his family with him, Jackson led this remnant legislature, made up of those who had by now been deposed by the provisional state government (and who probably never achieved a quorum), which passed a provisional ordinance of secession and authorized relations with the Confederacy. In November the Confederate government formally recognized Missouri as its twelfth state, though it remained in Union control for the remainder of the war.
In the spring of 1862 Jackson accompanied Price and the Missouri army into Arkansas, where they fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Confederate defeat ended the chance of reclaiming Missouri, and Jackson retreated. Soon his health began to fail, and he and his family retired to Little Rock, where he died of cancer on December 6, 1862. He is buried in the Sappington family cemetery at Arrow Rock, Missouri.
Kirkpatrick, Arthur Roy. “The Admission of Missouri to the Confederacy.” Missouri Historical Review 55, no. 1 (July 1961): 366–86.
———. “Missouri on the Eve of the Civil War.” Missouri Historical Review 55, no. 2 (January 1961): 99–108.
Lyon, William H. “Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Secession Crisis in Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 58, no. 4 (July 1964): 422–41.
Parrish, William E. Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1963.
Phillips, Christopher. Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
———. Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
Snead, Thomas L. The Fight for Missouri from the Election of Lincoln to the Death of Lyon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886.
Published July 18, 2022
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