William B. Napton

William B. Napton (1808-1883)

State Supreme Court Judge, leading member of the "Central Clique" and "leading spirit" of the Lexington Convention.

William Barclay Napton was born in New Jersey, attended Lawrenceville School and graduated from Princeton in 1826 with high honors. Family financial reverses led him to a job as a tutor in a Virginia congressman's home where he met many leading southern Democrats. He later attended classes at the University of Virginia Law School while conducting a preparatory school in Charlottesville. In 1830 he graduated from the law school, again with high honors, and was admitted to Virginia practice in 1831.He moved to Missouri in 1832, first living in Columbia before settling in Fayette where he became editor of the "Boonslick Democrat."

An ardent Democrat since his days in Virginia, Napton was one of the founders of the "Central Clique" of Boons Lick politicians who gained control of the Democratic Party in Missouri in 1835. He was appointed secretary of the State Senate in 1834, Attorney General in 1836 and Judge on the State Supreme Court in 1839. He served on the court until 1851, and returned again 1857, remaining until 1861 when he as removed for his refusal to take a test oath of allegiance to the Union. In 1863 Napton moved to St. Louis and practiced law. In 1873, he was again appointed to the State Supreme Court to fill a vacancy and served until 1880. His written opinions were considered models of clearness, conciseness, and sound legal authority. [State Historical Society, "Missouri Day by Day,"Napton]

Judge Napton was the author of the 1849 "Jackson Resolutions" passed by the Missouri General Assembly in an attempt to "instruct" and control United States Senator Benton's position on expansion of slavery in the territories. The historic split of the Democratic party in Missouri between Benton and anti-Benton factions began with the Resolutions. [Merkel, Decline of Benton, 392]

Napton was "the leading spirit" of the Lexington Slave Owners Convention in 1855. He was a member of the "Committee of Four" issuing the call for the meeting. At the sessions, he introduced all resolutions written by the committee he chaired . At the conclusion of the meeting, Napton was named to a five member committee to "draw up an address to the people of the United States...setting forth the history of this Kansas excitement." [Trexler, Slavery in Missouri, 115] The judge led the moderates at Lexington who controlled the platform and drafted the final document on which both moderates and "fire-eaters" could agree. It clearly asserted the control of the institution of slavery lay with the states, not Congress, but stopped short of nullification and disunion, as the "fire-eaters" would have chosen. [Hurt, Agriculture and Slavery, 286]

Napton, writing in 1856, had a clear forecast of the outcome of the Kansas conflict:

"[Missourians] look upon the establishment of a free state on their border, and such a free state as Kansas must be under present auspices, as equivalent to the destruction of slavery here and in this they do not err. It is therefore self preservation that forces them to resist the aggressions of the abolitionists upon Kansas. They have no alternative. Kansas and Missouri await the same fate... [It] will end in a civil war--first a border war, but soon a general state of hostilities between the two sections of the Union, slaveholding and non-slaveholding." [Phillips, Missouri Confederate, 205]

Charles Clark