“The Family”—or “The Dynasty”—was the name given to a powerful group of Democrats who dominated Arkansas politics in the years between statehood and the Civil War. The roots of the Family stretched back into the territorial period, when it coalesced around territorial delegate Henry Conway, the scion of a wealthy Tennessee family. In 1827, Conway was mortally wounded in a duel with Territorial Secretary Robert Crittenden, his former patron and the most powerful political figure in Arkansas in the territorial era. The killing of Conway exacerbated the schism in Arkansas politics between Crittenden and his supporters, who became the basis for the Whig Party in Arkansas, and the followers of the slain Conway, staunch Democrats and supporters of Andrew Jackson, who portrayed themselves as champions of the common man. Among the latter group were Conway’s younger brother James; his cousins, Elias and Wharton Rector; and another cousin, Ambrose Sevier. Sevier was elected to the remainder of Henry Conway’s term and served in that capacity until Arkansas became a state in 1836. On September 27, 1827, he married Juliette Johnson, the daughter of Benjamin Johnson, a Superior Court judge for the Arkansas Territory.
Since many members of the group were related by blood or by marriage, the political alliance of Conways, Rectors, Sevier, and Johnson soon came to be referred to as “The Family.” The results of the first state elections in 1836 confirmed the Family’s dominance in Arkansas politics. James Conway was elected the state’s first governor, Ambrose Sevier was chosen by the state legislature to be one of the state’s first U.S. senators, and Benjamin Johnson was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to be the state’s first federal district judge. That same year, Benjamin Johnson’s brother, Richard M. Johnson, was elected vice president of the United States on a ticket with Martin Van Buren.
In the late antebellum period, a second generation of Family politicians emerged. Foremost among them were Benjamin Johnson’s son, Robert Ward Johnson, who served the state as a congressman and later as a U.S. senator, and Elias Conway, the youngest brother of Henry and James, who served two terms as governor between 1852 and 1860. Ironically, the end of the Family’s domination of Arkansas politics came in 1860 at the hands of Henry Massie Rector, the son of Family member Elias Rector and blood relative of the Conways and Sevier. In the gubernatorial election of that year, Rector challenged Family candidate Richard H. Johnson. Following a bitter campaign in which the Family’s long-time dominance of Arkansas politics was a central theme, Rector defeated Johnson by almost 3,000 votes. It was the first significant defeat for a Family politician since statehood. Robert Ward Johnson later served in the Confederate Senate, but Rector’s victory and the coming of the Civil War effectively ended the Family’s domination of Arkansas politics.
For additional information:
Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas, 1800–1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
Dougan, Michael B. “A Look at the Family in Arkansas Politics, 1858–1865.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Summer 1970): 99–111.
Lewis, Elsie Mae. “Robert Ward Johnson: Militant Spokesman of the Old South-West.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 12 (Spring 1954): 16–30.
Thomas A. DeBlack
Arkansas Tech University