Courtesy of U.A.L.R. Special Collections
William Meade Fishback was born in Jeffersonton, Virginia, on November 5, 1831. The house in which he was born and raised still stands today. Fishback grew up in Culpeper County, receiving a traditional education, as his father was a successful farmer. He graduated from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) in 1855. After graduating, he taught school and studied law, before moving to Illinois where he was admitted to the bar in 1857. Though he had regular contact with Illinois politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, Fishback moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas only a year later. By 1859, Fishback again moved to Greenwood, Arkansas to establish a law partnership with Judge Solomon F. Clark.
In 1861 Fishback was elected as a Unionist delegate to the secession convention, but ultimately voted for secession. He fled Arkansas after the outbreak of war and served for a time as the editor of the St. Louis Democrat. When Little Rock fell in 1863, General J. M. Schofield attempted to persuade Fishback to return to Arkansas and recruit a Union regiment. Instead he founded a newspaper, The Unconditional Union, and worked with Isaac Murphy to form a Loyalist government. Fishback was the principal author of the Loyalist Constitution of 1864 and was elected to the U. S. Senate that same year. Congress, however, refused to seat him.
After the war, he served as a federal treasury agent for the state, protecting impoverished Confederates from property seizures. For the next decade, he continued his law practice from his offices in Fort Smith.
In 1867, the Republican party desired that Fishback would be their candidate for state legislature. By now an outspoken critic of Reconstruction, Fishback declined and professed himself a Democrat. It was not until 1874 that Fishback returned to public office. He was the Sebastian County delegate to the 1874 Arkansas Constitutional Convention. In 1876, Fishback was selected as a Democrat nominee for the Arkansas Legislature, serving until 1881.
Fishback became concerned with the issue of repudiation of Arkansas's debt. He believed that some of the state's debt was created by fraudulent means, and some was the result of Reconstruction. He argued that only "just" debt should be repaid. He introduced what is known as the "Fishback Amendment" to the state constitution, which prohibited the state authorities from paying the Holford bonds (results of Arkansas's prewar credit troubles), railroad aid and levee bonds (both challenged because the funds did not produce measurable results). Though the proposed amendment failed to pass in 1880, it was finally approved by voters in the 1884 general election, and adopted as the first amendment to the constitution in January 1885. Though championed by many as the "Great Repudiator," resentment toward Fishback by top Democrats barred the path to higher office. He did not win a gubernatorial nomination in 1880, nor a place in the U.S. Senate in 1884. He instead was reelected to the state legislature in 1884. His efforts finally received the attention of the Democratic party, and they nominated him for governor in 1892. He defeated the candidate from the new People's party, Jacob P. Carnahan, and the Republican nominee, William G. Whipple. Fishback won with three times as many votes as either nominee.
His accomplishments as governor were hindered by his belief that the role of government should be limited, and the lack of attention he gave to developing and maintaining a relationship with the legislature. Primarily, Fishback enhanced the national image of Arkansas with the state's exhibition in the World's Fair in Chicago (1893), and other similar promotional activities. In addition, he reorganized the St. Francis Levee District (an area of 1,500 square miles between Crowley's Ridge and the Mississippi River).
Fishback left public office in January 1895, and resumed his work in law in Fort Smith. William M. Fishback suffered a stroke and died on February 9, 1903. He is buried at the Oak Cemetery, Fort Smith, Arkansas.
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