The year was 1861, and after a divisive presidential election, the nation was tearing itself apart. Eight states had seceded from the Union. And now, Isaac Murphy faced a choice.
In May 1861, the Arkansas Secession Convention had reconvened after the battle at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. After the fall of the Union base, President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from the still-loyal states to defend the Union. For the states of the Upper South, this was too much. Shortly after Lincoln’s announcement, Virginia, which had initially voted against secession, voted to pull out. Now it was Arkansas’s turn to decide, and the delegates were pushing heavily for secession.
This was not the first time that Murphy had to take a stand. He was born in 1799 in Tennessee, but his father died while he was still young. He eventually attended college in Pennsylvania, becoming an attorney and a teacher. He married in 1830, but his infuriated father-in-law soon disowned his daughter after finding out that Murphy was an abolitionist. He refused to change his views, and his wife stayed by his side.
After moving to the Fayetteville area, he bought a farm and continued to teach and practice law. He was elected as a Democrat as the first treasurer of Washington County as Arkansas claimed statehood in 1836. He declined to run for re-election in 1838. In 1846, he was elected to the first of two terms as a state representative. As a legislator, he took the lead in an attempt to create a statewide public school system. However, he was unable to convince enough legislators of the value of an education system for the state and faced strong opposition to the costs.
He hit hard times financially and lost his farm in 1851. The family moved to nearby Huntsville in Madison County. In 1856, he was elected to the state senate, representing Madison and Benton counties. After the election of Lincoln in 1860, Murphy was elected as a delegate to the secession convention.
The issue of slavery and secession bitterly divided families, political parties, churches, and communities. Murphy promised from the beginning that he would not support secession. In the first session in February 1861, the state narrowly rejected secession at the convention in Little Rock in February by a vote of 39-35. Murphy had been part of the majority that rejected disunion. Nearly all of the delegates supporting the Union were from northern Arkansas.?
When the second session convened in May, support for the Union had collapsed. Delegates now voted 65-5 to secede. On a second vote to try to show unity in the state, Murphy could have gone along with the crowd, but Murphy alone stood against secession. He announced that he promised he would support the Union, and he would not break that promise. While there were howls of disapproval, he stood firm. He also refused to support the new secessionist state constitution.
When Union troops invaded Northwest Arkansas in 1862, he and his family fed to Missouri to avoid the violence. After Little Rock fell to Union forces in September 1863, Arkansas Unionists began trying to piece together a new, loyal state government. Among their choices for governor, one name alone was mentioned: Isaac Murphy, who had stood for the Union all along. Isaac Murphy became the state’s eighth governor in 1864, serving until 1868, leading the state out of the dark years of the war.
Sometimes the passion of the moment is the wrong answer. The Civil War devastated Arkansas. For Isaac Murphy, integrity was the right course.