James L. Alcorn was Mississippi’s first elected Republican governor. Alcorn had previously served in the state legislature of Kentucky and Mississippi, and had risen to the rank of general in the Confederate military service during the Civil War.
Alcorn was born near Golconda, Illinois, on November 4, 1816. At an early age he moved to Kentucky with his family. After graduating from Cumberland College, Alcorn moved to Mississippi to establish a law practice at Delta, in Panola County. While he was practicing law, and accumulating large land holdings and a large number of enslaved peoples, Alcorn served in the Mississippi Legislature. He also represented his county in the state constitutional conventions of 1851 and 1861. Perhaps his most important contribution to his adopted state prior to the Civil War was the Mississippi levee system. Alcorn was the author of the bill creating the levee board and served as its first president.
As a member of the Whig Party, Alcorn opposed secession in 1861 but like most other Mississippi Whigs, he served in the Confederate Army and supported the Confederacy. After the war, Alcorn advocated full civil rights for the former enslaved peoples, including the right to vote, the right to hold public office, and the right to testify in court. Alcorn became a leader in Mississippi’s newly established Republican Party and won his party’s nomination for governor. Following his election in 1869, and Mississippi’s re-admission to the Union, Alcorn was inaugurated on March 10, 1870. In the political parlance of the Reconstruction era, Governor Alcorn was a “scalawag,” that is, a white southerner who became a Republican after the Civil War.
During his administration, the Mississippi Legislature established a state system of public education and founded Alcorn University, the first land-grant college for African Americans in the United States. The legislature also granted new business corporations certain tax exemptions and other benefits to make Mississippi more attractive to industry.
Governor Alcorn resigned in November 1871 to accept an appointment to the U. S. Senate. Two years later he again ran for governor but lost to Adelbert Ames. Following the expiration of his senate term in 1877, Alcorn returned to Eagle’s Nest, his plantation home in Coahoma County.
Alcorn served as a delegate to the convention that drafted Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution. It was the third state constitutional convention he had attended during his long career in Mississippi. It was also his last act of public service. Four years later, he died at Eagle’s Nest on December 19, 1894. Alcorn County and Alcorn State University are named in honor of Mississippi’s twenty-eighth governor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 767.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 75.
Pereyra, Lillian A. James L. Alcorn: Persistent Whig (Baton Rouge, 1966).
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form I. 62-71.