Known to his friends and followers as Johnny McRae of Chickasawhay, John J. McRae sailed his steamer Triumph up and down the Chickasawhay River “as if it were the Mississippi itself.” A contemporary described McRae, a folk hero who was extremely popular with the people of Mississippi, as “bright . . . humorous and fascinating.”
McRae was born in Sneedsboro, North Carolina, on 10 January 1815 and was only two years old when his family moved to Winchester, Mississippi, in Wayne County. After graduating from Ohio’s Miami University, McRae returned to Paulding, the seat of Jasper County, to practice law. McRae also published the Eastern Clarion, the forerunner of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
McRae was elected to represent Clarke County in the legislature in 1847 and was named Speaker of the House three years later. On 1 December 1851 he was appointed to replace Jefferson Davis in the US Senate after he resigned to run for the Mississippi governorship. McRae served until 17 March 1852, when the legislature appointed Stephen D. Adams to complete the term. In 1853 McRae was the States’ Rights Democrats’ nominee for the governorship, and he defeated the Whig candidate by several thousand votes. He easily won reelection in 1855.
During McRae’s first administration Mississippi opened its first mental hospital and established an asylum for the deaf and speechless. The state also started a levee program in the Delta and adopted the Mississippi Code of 1857. In McRae’s second term, the state adopted a constitutional amendment designed to prevent the recurrence of the situation caused by Gov. John A. Quitman’s 1851 resignation. The amendment set the state’s general elections for the first Monday in October and moved the inauguration of the governor from the first Monday in January following the general election to the first Monday in November. That amendment shortened McRae’s second term by about two months.
In 1858, McRae was elected to Quitman’s seat in the US House of Representatives following his death. McRae remained in Congress until 12 January 1861. McRae subsequently won election to the Confederate Congress, where he served from 1862 to 1864.
McRae left public affairs after the Civil War. He died suddenly on 31 May 1868 while visiting Belize.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)
- David G. Sansing and Carroll Waller, A History of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion (1977)