Hamilton Rowan Gamble

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Hamilton Rowan Gamble.

Hamilton Rowan Gamble (November 29, 1798– January 31, 1864) was the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court at the time of the Dred Scott Decision in 1852, when his colleagues voted to overturn the 28-year precedent in Missouri of "once free always free". He wrote a dissenting opinion. During the American Civil War, he was appointed as the 16th Governor of Missouri (1861–1864) by a Constitutional Convention after Union forces captured the state capital at Jefferson City and deposed the elected governor.

Early life and education[edit]

Hamilton Gamble was born in Winchester, Virginia, the youngest of seven children of Joseph and Anne Hamilton Gamble, Scots-Irish who immigrated to Virginia in 1784 from northern Ireland. Gamble studied at local schools and at age 13 went to Hampden-Sydney College, a Presbyterian seminary.[1] He read the law with an established firm and by 1817 was accepted to the bar in Virginia. In 1818 as a young man of 20, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri to join his older brother Archibald Gamble, who had moved there earlier and was established as a clerk of the St. Louis Circuit Court.[1]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1827, Gamble married Caroline J. Coalter of Columbia, South Carolina. He likely met her when she was visiting St. Louis, as both her brother David Coalter and a sister lived there. Her sister was married to the attorney Edward Bates of St. Louis;[1] he later served as a judge and was appointed as the United States Attorney by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.[2]

Hamilton and Caroline had three children: Hamilton, David, and Mary Coalter Gamble.[2]


After practicing in Franklin in the middle of the state, Gamble became prosecuting attorney of the Circuit Court of Howard County, Missouri. In 1824 Frederick Bates appointed him as secretary of state and he moved to the capital, then located at St. Charles, Missouri.

When the capital was moved to Jefferson City, Gamble returned to St. Louis in 1826, settling in the major city of the state. He set up a private legal practice there. Although a slaveholder, he defended slaves in court. He became a member of the American Colonization Society, which supported the resettlement of free blacks in Liberia.[3]

In 1846, Gamble was elected to the Missouri Supreme Court by the Whig Party, the first justice from this party. He was quickly elected chief justice, on a rotating term. Though a slaveholder, he dissented in the Missouri Supreme Court decision of the Dred Scott v. Emerson case. He maintained that Scott was free because he had been held illegally as a slave while resident in a free state, according to the 28-year-old precedent set in the 1824 ruling of "once free always free" in Winny v. Whitesides.

Gamble resigned his judgeship in 1855 due to failing health, and in 1858 moved to Pennsylvania.

Provisional Governor of Missouri[edit]

As the secession crisis deepened, Missouri attempted to follow a policy of armed neutrality, in which the state would not support either side in the war but remain in the Union. A special election in February established a Missouri Constitutional Convention to determine the relationship between Missouri and the United States. The convention voted against secession and affirmed the state's neutrality.

The outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter led to unrest in Missouri. A secessionist mob seized the Liberty Arsenal a week later. Governor Claiborne Jackson called up the state militia for drill in St. Louis and to receive some arms clandestinely obtained from the Confederacy. This resulted in a confrontation with the aggressive Union commander Nathaniel Lyon, who forced the surrender of the militia, in what was called the Camp Jackson Affair. After a deadly riot ensued, the Missouri legislature authorized the reorganization of the militia into the Missouri State Guard, controlled by the governor. General William Harney reached an agreement with the new Missouri State Guard commander Sterling Price, known as the Price-Harney Truce. When Lincoln appointed Lyon to replace Harney as commander of the Department of the West, he was not willing to have Price keep the militia independent of his control.

When negotiations among the governor, Lyon, and Price failed, Lyon took military actions to secure the state capital for the Union. He captured Jefferson City, Missouri in mid-June 1861, forcing Governor Jackson and the state government into exile.

The Missouri Constitutional Convention reconvened to consider the status of the state in July. The convention declared the governor's office and state legislative offices to be vacant and appointed Gamble as governor of a provisional government of Missouri on August 1. Gov. Jackson called a rump session of the exiled General Assembly in Neosho, Missouri, and in late October with a dubious quorum passed an ordinance of secession.[4] Although secessionists considered Gamble an unelected puppet of the Union forces, he opposed harsh Union treatment of the state. For instance, he protested to President Lincoln about the Fremont Emancipation, which unilaterally freed the state's slaves in 1861 and imposed martial law. Lincoln agreed to Gamble's request to overturn this decision, rescinded the emancipation and removed John C. Fremont from command.

Gamble died in office in 1864 after suffering complications from an infection of a broken arm. He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.


  1. ^ a b c Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln's Resolute Unionist: Hamilton Gamble, Dred Scott Dissenter and Missouri's Civil War Governor, Louisiana State University Press, 2006, pp. 1-5, accessed 26 February 2011
  2. ^ a b "Hamilton Rowan Gamble Collection", Missouri History Museum, accessed 26 February 2011
  3. ^ Boman, p. 14
  4. ^ http://www.constitution.org/csa/ordinances_secession.htm#Missouri
Political offices
Preceded by
William Grymes Pettus
Missouri Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Spencer Darwin Pettis
Preceded by
Claiborne Fox Jackson
Governor of Missouri
Succeeded by
Willard Preble Hall