After Governor John Isaac Guion vacated the office of governor November 4, 1851, Mississippi was without a chief executive for twenty days. The state supreme court had ruled that “all officers of this state are elected for limited terms, which shall expire at the time of the general election.” According to that ruling the term of the secretary of state, Joseph Bell, had also expired, and the attorney general and others advised him that he could no longer legally act as secretary of state. But there was no governor to commission the newly elected secretary of state, and no secretary of state to convene the state senate to elect a president to assume the office of governor. In addition, no one was authorized to receive and validate the election returns to ascertain who was elected in the general election.
Secretary of State Joseph Bell, without legal authority, continued to act in his official capacity and issued a proclamation convening the state senate in extraordinary session on November 24, 1851. In the meantime he continued to perform the duties of secretary of state, answered the governor’s mail, and attended to other affairs of state as he deemed necessary and proper.
When the senate convened on November 24, James Whitfield of Lowndes County was elected president on the twenty-first ballot, by one vote, and immediately assumed the office of governor. In addition to performing the routine duties of the office, Governor Whitfield had the opportunity during his term of forty-eight days to appoint John J. McRae to the U. S. Senate to fill the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, who had resigned on September 23, 1851, to run for governor against Henry S. Foote. However, when the legislature convened for its regular session in January 1852, McRae was replaced by Stephen D. Adams who filled the remainder of Davis’s term. Governor Whitfield’s brief term expired January 10, 1852.
James Whitfield was born in Elbert County, Georgia, on December 15, 1791. As a young man he moved to Columbus in Lowndes County after the American Indian lands were opened for white settlement. He combined his mercantile interests with planting and became very prosperous. In 1852, he opened an insurance company and banking house which remained solvent throughout the Civil War. In 1870, Whitfield retired from all active business and political affairs. On June 25, 1875, Governor Whitfield died at Snowden, his home in Columbus, at age eighty-four.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
McLemore, Richard Aubrey. A History of Mississippi, Vol. I. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1973. p. 307.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 64.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form I, 960.