A contemporary historian wrote that the history of George Poindexter’s public career is “the history of the Territory and the State of Mississippi, so closely and prominently was he connected with everything that occurred.” Poindexter, who was born in Louisa County, Virginia, on 19 April 1779, received an irregular education even by the standards of the time and practiced law in Richmond before migrating to Natchez in 1802 to escape the mounting demands of his creditors. He opened a successful law practice and then launched a long and distinguished political career, serving as a delegate to the territorial assembly, attorney general of the Mississippi Territory, a territorial judge, and a territorial representative to the US Congress, US congressman, and US senator. Poindexter was elected president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate in 1834.
Poindexter arrived in the Mississippi Territory in December 1802. Less than a year later, despite—or perhaps at least in part because of—Poindexter’s propensity to gamble and drink, Gov. W. C. C. Claiborne appointed him the territory’s attorney general on 19 November 1803. By that time Poindexter had also made a lifelong enemy of Andrew Marschalk, the founder of Mississippi’s first newspaper, the Washington Republican.
In July 1806 Poindexter represented Adams County in the territory’s general assembly. He also served as a captain in the successful march to Natchitoches on 2–14 October 1806 to ward off the encroaching Spaniards. When Col. Aaron Burr, who had been accused of treason, made camp across the Mississippi River from Natchez in January 1807, acting governor Cowles Mead sent a group of men, including Poindexter, to bring Burr into town for questioning. As attorney general, Poindexter concluded that Mississippi Territory authorities had no jurisdiction over the area where Burr had settled and that the charges against Burr therefore had to be dismissed. When the courts overturned Poindexter’s ruling, he disassociated himself with any further proceedings in the case.
In February 1807 the territorial legislature elected Poindexter as the Mississippi Territory’s delegate to the US Congress. On 7 February he resigned as attorney general and prepared to go to Washington, D.C. He stopped in Richmond, Virginia, in October to appear in court as a witness in Burr’s federal trial for treason. As a territorial delegate, Poindexter could not vote in Congress, so during his first term he took part only in matters directly concerning Mississippi Territory. However, he proved more vocal in his second and third terms, speaking out on subjects not pertaining directly to Mississippi. He also laid the groundwork for statehood by forming a committee to oversee the process and proposing the Mississippi River as the divide between the Orleans and Mississippi Territories.
In June 1811, during one of his periodic visits to Mississippi, Poindexter killed a longtime enemy, Abijah Hunt, in a duel, spurring questions about Poindexter’s supposedly honorable conduct that plagued him for the remainder of his life. By the end of his third term as the Mississippi delegate in 1813, Poindexter’s numerous achievements included stretching the territory’s boundary to the Gulf Coast and paving the way for statehood. After refusing a fourth term as delegate, he was appointed a federal district judge for Mississippi, serving from 1813 to 1817.
During Poindexter’s tenure as a federal judge, his feud with Marschalk flared up. Marschalk smeared Poindexter’s honor in his newspapers, and Poindexter had Marschalk jailed. An 1815 trial found Marschalk guilty of unsubstantiated defamation, and his unsavory writings about Poindexter subsided in fear of a violent physical retaliation.
When delegate William Lattimore obtained permission in Congress for Mississippi to become a state in March 1817, Poindexter left his judgeship to become a congressional representative and delegate to the territory’s constitutional convention. Poindexter took charge of creating Mississippi’s state constitution, assigning himself to every committee and practically writing it himself. On 15 August 1817 all the delegates to the constitutional convention except two signed the new state constitution and sent it to Washington, D.C., where it was approved. Mississippi became a state on 10 December 1817. Although that first constitution was replaced in 1832, it was one of the highlights of Poindexter’s political career.
He later compiled the Poindexter Code, the state’s first legal compendium. In 1819, while serving in the US Congress, Poindexter was elected as Mississippi’s second governor. During Poindexter’s administration the state capital was moved from Natchez to Jackson; the judicial system was restructured and a court of chancery was created; the militia was reorganized, enlarged, and strengthened; public assistance for indigent school children was established through the Literary Fund; and the second Choctaw land cession was finalized in 1820 under the Treaty of Doak’s Stand.
Approximately two weeks after he was inaugurated, Gov. Poindexter signed a bill emancipating William Johnson, the famous Barber of Natchez. Johnson eventually became Mississippi’s most famous and prosperous free black and often lent money to his white friends—including George Poindexter.
In 1822, rather than seeking reelection as governor, Poindexter ran for Congress but was defeated. After that setback, he practiced law in Jackson until his appointment to the US Senate in 1830. During the 1832–33 tariff controversy, Poindexter sided with John C. Calhoun against Pres. Andrew Jackson. In the other great national controversy of that period, Poindexter supported the rechartering of the national bank, a position that again placed him at odds with Jackson, for whom Poindexter had little regard. Some observers have credited Poindexter as the first person to use the term kitchen cabinet to describe Jackson’s closest advisers.
This opposition to Jackson, who was immensely popular in Mississippi, caused Poindexter’s defeat for reappointment to the US Senate in 1835. After living for a short while in Lexington, Kentucky, he returned to establish his law office in Jackson, where he watched his fame dwindle until he was virtually forgotten. In 1840 he ceremoniously gave a portrait of himself to the State of Mississippi. He died on 5 September 1853.
- Robert Bailey, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1973).Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- P. L. Rainwater, Journal of Southern History (May 1938)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1906)
- Allene Sugg, “The Senatorial Career of George Poindexter, 1830–1835” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1950)
- Mack Buckley Swearingen, The Early Life of George Poindexter: A Story of the First Southwest (1934)