Known to his friends and followers as “Johnny McRae of Chickasawhay,” Governor John J. McRae sailed his steamer Triumph up and down the Chickasawhay River “as if it were the Mississippi itself.” McRae was a folk hero and was extremely popular with the people of Mississippi. He was described by a contemporary as “bright ... humorous and fascinating.”
McRae was born in Sneedsborough, North Carolina, on January 10, 1815, and was only two years old when his family moved to Winchester in Wayne County, Mississippi. After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, McRae returned to Paulding, the county seat of Jasper County, to practice law. McRae also published a newspaper called the Eastern Clarion, the forerunner of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
In 1847, McRae was elected to represent Clarke County in the Mississippi Legislature and was named Speaker of the House in 1850. On December 1, 1851, McRae was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis in the U.S. Senate but served only until March 17, 1852, when the legislature appointed Stephen D. Adams to complete the term. In 1853, McRae was the popular choice for governor of the States’ Rights Democrats and he defeated the Whig candidate by several thousand votes. He was easily re-elected in 1855.
During Governor McRae’s first administration, Mississippi opened its first mental hospital and established an asylum for the deaf and speechless. The state also started a levee program in the Delta and adopted a new legal code known as the Mississippi Code of 1857. In Governor McRae’s second term, the state adopted a constitutional amendment designed to prevent the reoccurrence of the situation caused by Governor Quitman’s resignation in 1851. The amendment set the state’s general elections for the first Monday in October and moved the inauguration of the governor from the first Monday in January following the general election to the first Monday in November. That amendment shortened Governor McRae’s second term by about two months.
Following the death of Congressman John A. Quitman in 1858, Governor McRae was elected to his seat in the United States House of Representatives and remained in Congress until Mississippi seceded from the Union. McRae resigned his seat in Congress on January 12, 1861. After the establishment of the Confederate States of America, McRae was elected to the Confederate Congress, where he served from 1862 to 1864.
After the Civil War, McRae did not take an active role in public affairs. In 1868, he sailed to Belize, British Honduras, to visit his brother. While in Belize, he died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 31, 1868.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1550.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 67.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II 201-207.
Sansing, David and Carroll Waller, Mississippi Governor’s Mansion (Jackson, 1977), 40.