In 1831 Hiram Runnels lost the office of governor by the narrowest margin in Mississippi history, 247 votes. Two years later he won the office by the narrowest margin in the state’s history, 558 votes. And in 1835 he lost again, by just 426 votes, a defeat attributed at least in part to an emotional outburst he launched against one of his opponents. The excitable and volatile Runnels also fought a duel with a Jackson newspaper editor and struck Gov. Alexander McNutt with a walking cane on a downtown street in Jackson.
Runnels was born on 15 December 1796 in Hancock County, Georgia, and migrated to Mississippi, settling near Monticello in Lawrence County. In 1822, when the legislature appointed him state auditor, Runnels moved to Jackson. He served as auditor until his election to the State Senate from Hinds County in 1830. He sided with Pres. Andrew Jackson during the tariff controversy of 1832, and his close identification with Jackson brought substantial support that enabled Runnels to win the governorship in a May 1833 special election. Although the legislature had authorized the new governor to assume the office immediately, confusion existed about when his term should actually begin, and Runnels did not take office until 20 November 1833, as specified in the new 1832 constitution.
During Runnels’s administration the state militia was reorganized and enlarged, and sixteen new counties were created from the lands in North Mississippi that had been ceded by the Choctaw and Chickasaw in 1830 and 1832.
Runnels ran for reelection in 1835 but on 2 November was defeated by Charles Lynch. Eighteen days later—exactly two years after his inauguration—Runnels considered his term to have expired and vacated the office. But the legislature had moved the inauguration of the governor and the opening of the next legislative session to January 1836. With the legislature not in session, there was no president of the Senate to succeed Runnels. Mississippi remained without a governor for thirteen days, until the secretary of state called a special session of the Senate to elect a president who could assume the office of governor. The Senate convened on 3 December and elected John A. Quitman, who served until Lynch’s inauguration on 7 January 1836.
Runnels served as president of Jackson’s Union Bank from its creation in 1838 until it failed three years later. In July 1840 he not only dueled with a newspaper editor who impugned his banking skills but also attacked McNutt, another Runnels critic. Runnels subsequently moved to Texas, where he remained active in politics and served in the state legislature. While a member of the Texas Senate, Runnels died on 17 December 1857.
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1908, 1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)