James Whitfield became Mississippi’s governor under unusual circumstances and served for only about six weeks. Born in Elbert County, Georgia, on 15 December 1791, Whitfield moved to Columbus, in Lowndes County, after the Indian lands were opened for white settlement. He combined his mercantile interests with planting and prospered. He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1842 to 1850 and in the Mississippi State Senate in 1851.
As the 1851 gubernatorial election approached, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that “all officers of this state are elected for limited terms, which shall expire at the time of the general election.” On 4 November 1851 Henry Stuart Foote faced off against Jefferson Davis in the race for the governorship. In keeping with the court’s ruling, incumbent governor John Isaac Guion vacated the office on 4 November. But according to the ruling, the term of the secretary of state, Joseph Bell, had also expired, and the attorney general and others advised him that he could no longer legally act in that capacity. But there was no governor to commission the newly elected secretary of state, and no secretary of state to convene the State Senate to elect a president to assume the office of governor. In addition, no one was authorized to receive and validate the election returns to ascertain who had won the general election. Mississippi remained without a governor for twenty days. Even though he lacked legal authority, Bell continued to act in his official capacity and issued a proclamation convening the State Senate in extraordinary session on 24 November 1851.
The Senate convened and elected Whitfield to serve as its president—on the twenty-first ballot, by one vote. He immediately assumed the office of governor. In addition to performing the routine duties of the office, Whitfield appointed John J. McRae to the US Senate to fill the unexpired term of Davis, who had resigned on 23 September 1851 to run for the governorship. Whitfield left the governor’s office on 10 January 1852, when Foote, who had won the November election, was inaugurated.
In 1852 he opened an insurance company and banking house, which remained solvent throughout the Civil War. He returned to the State House of Representatives from 1858 to 1862. In 1870 Whitfield retired from all active business and political affairs, and on 25 June 1875 he died at Snowdoun, his Columbus home.
- Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi, vol. 1 (1973)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)