James L. Alcorn was Mississippi’s first elected Republican governor and the namesake of Alcorn County and Alcorn State University. Alcorn had previously served in the state legislatures of Kentucky and Mississippi and had risen to the rank of general in the Confederate military service during the Civil War.
Alcorn was born near Golconda, Illinois, on 4 November 1816. At a very early age he moved to Kentucky with his family. He graduated from Cumberland College and then served as deputy sheriff in Livingston County from 1839 to 1844 and in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1843 before moving to Mississippi to establish a law practice at Delta, in Panola County. While practicing law and accumulating large landholdings and numerous slaves, Alcorn served in the Mississippi legislature. He also represented his county in the state constitutional conventions of 1851 and 1861. Perhaps his most important contribution to his adopted state prior to the Civil War was his authorship of the bill creating the levee board and his service as its first president.
A member of the Whig Party, Alcorn opposed secession in 1861, but like most Mississippi Whigs, he served in the Confederate Army and supported the Confederacy. After the war Alcorn advocated full civil rights for former slaves, including the rights to vote, to hold public office, and to testify in court. Alcorn became a leader in Mississippi’s newly established Republican Party and won its nomination for governor. Following his election in 1869 and Mississippi’s readmission to the Union, Alcorn was inaugurated on 10 March 1870. In Reconstruction parlance, Alcorn was a scalawag, a white southerner who became a Republican after the Civil War.
During his administration the Mississippi legislature established a state system of public education and founded Alcorn University, the first land-grant college for blacks in the United States. The legislature also granted new business corporations certain tax exemptions and other benefits to make Mississippi more attractive to railroads and other industry. Alcorn’s administration worked to improve public education but did not resolve issues of segregation and unequal funding in education.
Alcorn resigned in November 1871 to accept an appointment to the US Senate. Two years later he again ran for governor but lost to Adelbert Ames. Following the expiration of his Senate term in 1877, Alcorn returned to Eagle’s Nest, his plantation home in Coahoma County.
Alcorn’s last act of public service came when he became a delegate to the convention that drafted Mississippi’s 1890 constitution, the third such gathering in which he participated. On 19 December 1894 he died at Eagle’s Nest.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1865–1877 (1988)
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912); Lillian A. Pereyra, James L. Alcorn: Persistent Whig (1966)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 1 (1907)