Governor Joseph W. Matthews was a plain and unlettered frontiersman who lacked the flair for oratory which Mississippians expected from their statesmen. During the 1847 governor’s race, Matthews, a Democrat and surveyor by trade, was jeered by the aristocratic Whigs. But apparently there were more plain folks than aristocrats because Matthews defeated his Whig opponent by 13,000 votes.
Matthews came to Mississippi from Alabama, where he was born in 1812 near Huntsville. He settled in Marshall County near the old town of Salem, which was then in Tippah County. Matthews was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1840 and four years later was elected to the state senate. In 1847, the Democratic Party nominated him as its candidate for governor on the third ballot.
By the time Matthews was inaugurated January 10, 1848, Mississippi’s economy had recovered from the panic of 1837 and the depression that followed. The Mexican-American War had created another period of prosperity for the old Cotton Kingdom. Because of that recovery and the state’s bright future, Governor Matthews proclaimed in his inaugural address, “our citizens are most free from debt, our storehouses abound with plenty [and] our march is onward and upwards toward prosperity and happiness.”
Governor Matthews’s administration was almost entirely free from the political turmoil that had so often characterized Mississippi politics. That relative tranquility was due largely to the excitement and preoccupation of the people with the war with Mexico and the general prosperity of the late 1840s.
Although Governor Matthews’s two years in office were free from controversy, they were not uneventful. During his administration, the state adopted a new legal code, established an institution for the blind, and the University of Mississippi opened for its first session in the fall of 1848. The Jackson-Brandon railroad also began operation, and telegraph service became available in Jackson and other parts of the state. It was also during Governor Matthews’s administration that the Washington Monument was under construction, and Governor Matthews was asked to select an appropriate stone to be placed in the monument to represent Mississippi.
The Mexican-American War and the admission of California to statehood as a free state agitated the slavery issue and the Mississippi Democrats passed over Governor Matthews in 1851 and nominated General John Anthony Quitman, the hero of the war with Mexico.
After his term expired, Governor Matthews retired from politics, although he served briefly in the Confederate diplomatic corps during the Civil War. Governor Matthews died August 27, 1862, at Palmetto, Georgia.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is professor of history emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 62.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II. 178-181.
Sansing, David and Carroll Waller, Mississippi Governor’s Mansion (Jackson, 1977), 27-29.