John Anthony Quitman was born in New York on September 1, 1798. He migrated to Natchez, Mississippi, in 1821 by way of Ohio, where he had studied law and taught school. In 1824, Quitman married Elizabeth Turner, the daughter of a wealthy Adams County planter, and eventually became one of the largest landowners in Mississippi. At one time, he owned 15,000 acres and 300 enslaved peoples. From Monmouth, his Natchez home, Quitman launched a highly successful military and political career. Quitman’s first biographer, John F. H. Claiborne, wrote that “A more ambitious man never lived. ... He was greedy for military fame.”
After serving briefly in the Mississippi Legislature, Quitman was elected chancery judge for the state of Mississippi in 1828 and held that office until 1835. Quitman opposed President Andrew Jackson on the tariff question of 1832-1833 and strongly supported nullification. He would eventually become one of the South’s most ardent secessionists. When Governor Hiram Runnels vacated the governor’s office in November 1835, a special session of the newly elected state senate on December 3, 1835, named Quitman president of the senate and thus governor. He served as governor until Charles Lynch was inaugurated a month later.
In 1846, John Quitman was appointed brigadier general in the United States Army and became a national hero during the Mexican-American War. He was promoted to major general and appointed provisional governor of Mexico during America’s brief occupation of that country. His exploits in Mexico made him a contender for the vice-presidential nomination in 1848. But Quitman, whose first love was the military, applied for a permanent commission in the regular army. After failing to attain a military appointment, Quitman ran for governor in 1849 and defeated his opponent by 10,000 votes.
While serving as governor of Mississippi, Quitman was invited by the Cuban revolutionary movement to lead its army in a war of independence against Spain. Quitman had long been a supporter of the Cuban insurgency and had gone to Cuba, in violation of America’s neutrality laws, to encourage the revolutionary movement. Quitman, however, declined the offer from the Cuban revolutionaries because he believed the South would soon secede from the Union and that his services would be needed by the southern confederacy.
When federal authorities arrested him for violating American neutrality laws, Quitman resigned from office. After the charges were eventually dropped, Quitman entered the governor’s race in 1851 but later withdrew from the campaign. Four years later, Quitman was elected to the U.S. Congress where he served from 1856 until his death July 17, 1858.
Quitman County, and the county seat of Clarke County, are named in honor of Mississippi's tenth and sixteenth governor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1712.
McLemore, Richard Aubrey. A History of Mississippi, Vol. I. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1973. p. 304.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 56.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II, 486-499.