William McWillie migrated to Mississippi from South Carolina, but, unlike most other antebellum Mississippians who migrated to the state, he did not come during his early childhood. McWillie moved to Mississippi during his middle years after a successful banking career in Camden, South Carolina. McWillie, who was born in the Kershaw District of South Carolina on November 17, 1795, had also served four years in the South Carolina Legislature.
In 1845, McWillie and his family moved to Madison County where he had purchased a plantation. He built a colonial style mansion called Kirkwood, where he lavishly entertained most of Mississippi’s prominent citizens of that era.
Although most other wealthy planters were Whigs who generally opposed secession, McWillie was an ardent advocate of states’ rights and aligned himself with that wing of the Mississippi Democratic Party. He began his political career in Mississippi in 1849 when he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat in a Whig district. But in 1851 he was defeated by a combination of Whigs and Democrats who formed the Union Party under Henry Foote.
At the Democratic Party Convention in 1857, McWillie was given the party’s nomination for governor on the fourteenth ballot by a majority of only three votes. He easily defeated the Whig candidate in the general election. Under the provisions of the 1855 constitutional amendment, Governor McWillie was inaugurated November 16, 1857.
In his inaugural address, Governor McWillie alluded to the country’s great sectional issues of slavery and states’ rights and predicted that secession of the slave states would become inevitable if those divisive issues were not resolved. And he called on the nation's leaders both in the North and South to seek an early solution to those issues.
During Governor McWillie’s administration, the levee system was greatly improved and railroad construction increased substantially. The growth of the railroads was encouraged largely because the state purchased stock in newly organized companies. Governor McWillie recommended a statewide public school system and the creation of a state superintendent of education to supervise Mississippi’s free schools. He commended the legislature for supporting higher education for the young men of the state and urged them to do the same for Mississippi’s college-age women. The legislature did not enact any of the educational legislation he recommended.
Just before Governor McWillie’s term expired, the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, occurred. That raid created great alarm in Mississippi, and Governor McWillie, fearing a large-scale slave revolt, urged the legislature to enlarge the state militia. The legislature did authorize an increase in the militia, but the fear of revolt proved to be unfounded.
After Governor McWillie left office in 1859, he retired from public life and spent his remaining years at Kirkwood. He was an active supporter of the Confederacy and his eldest son, Adam, was killed in the first Battle of Bull Run. Governor McWillie died at Kirkwood on March 3, 1869.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1552.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 69.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II. 207-212.