George Washington Campbell served as a U.S. senator, secretary of the treasury, ambassador to Russia, and U.S. district court judge of Tennessee. He was born in Scotland, the son of physician Archibald Campbell and Elizabeth Mackay Campbell, and migrated with his family to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1772. After the death of his father, Campbell worked on his mother's farm and taught school. He entered the junior class at Princeton, finished the work of two years in one, and graduated with high honors in 1794. Campbell adopted Washington as his middle name during this period when classmates at Princeton nicknamed him “George Washington” after the fame of the new president. He studied law, opened a practice in Knoxville, and soon ranked among the city's leading lawyers. Perhaps Campbell's most important case was his successful defense of Judge David Campbell in his impeachment trial before the Tennessee Senate.
With the support of Judge Andrew Jackson, George Washington Campbell was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1803, where he served until 1809. During his tenure in the House, Campbell chaired two of the most politically powerful committees, the Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on Foreign Relations. As a Jeffersonian Republican, Campbell supported the president and his administration and fought a duel on Bladensburg grounds with Barent Gardenier, a congressman from New York who claimed the House was under French control. Gardenier was seriously wounded.
In 1809 the Tennessee General Assembly appointed Campbell and Hugh Lawson White to serve as the first justices on the newly formed Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals. Campbell served two years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1811 on a platform advocating war with Great Britain. While in the Senate, Campbell, a Warhawk, served as Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. In 1812 he married Harriet Stoddert, daughter of Benjamin Stoddert, secretary of the navy in Jefferson's cabinet.
On February 9, 1814, Campbell resigned from the Senate to accept the position of secretary of the treasury in James Madison's cabinet. Due to the unsettled nature of the period, Campbell's tenure in the treasury is often viewed as a failure. In order to gain badly needed funds to finance the war, Campbell arranged to borrow money from Europe through the assistance of American businessman John Jacob Astor. Overwhelmed by the failures of the Treasury Department and his own poor health, Campbell resigned his cabinet post in September 1814.
Campbell's wife, Harriet Campbell, made her own contribution to history during the British invasion of Washington. Upon hearing the news of the impending arrival of the British army, Harriet urged her friend Dolley Madison to leave the president's house. With the help of Harriet and Charles Carroll, Mrs. Madison removed the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame and fled before the British burned the house and the city of Washington.
In 1815 Campbell returned to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1818. In December 1815 he and John Williams were commissioned to negotiate the extinguishment of the Indian claims in the chartered limits of Tennessee, a process that culminated in the Jackson Purchase.
In 1817, when James Monroe took office, he offered Campbell the position of secretary of war, but Campbell declined. A zealous supporter of the Monroe administration, Campbell chaired the Senate Finance Committee and advocated the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. In 1818 Monroe appointed Campbell Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. In accepting the position, Campbell became the first Tennessean to be appointed to a major diplomatic post. Under Secretary of State John Quincy Adams' direction, on the way to his post in Russia, Campbell adjusted Denmark's claims against U.S. privateers for disruption of commerce during the War of 1812. He served in Russia until 1820, when he was granted permission to resign after three of his children died of typhus in St. Petersburg.
Following his diplomatic service, Campbell returned to the state and accepted an appointment as judge of the U.S. District Court of Tennessee. He also served as a member of the 1831 commission to study French war claims and was named a director for the Nashville branch of the Bank of the United States.
On December 11, 1843, Campbell sold a tract of land known as “Campbell's Hill” to the City of Nashville for thirty thousand dollars, which was transferred to the State of Tennessee as the permanent site for the state's capitol. Campbell died in Nashville on February 17, 1848, and was buried in the family plot in the Nashville City Cemetery.
Weymouth T. Jordan, George Washington Campbell of Tennessee: Western Statesman (1955)