John Sharp Williams was born on 30 July 1854 in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Christopher Harris Williams Jr., a lawyer, and Anne Louise Sharp Williams. His paternal grandfather, a Whig, represented Tennessee in the US Congress for ten years, and his great-grandfather’s brother, Robert Williams, served as governor of the Mississippi Territory from 1805 to 1809. John Sharp’s mother died in 1859, and after his father, a Confederate officer, was killed in the Battle of Shiloh on 6 April 1862, his grandfather, John McNitt Sharp, came to Memphis and took John Sharp and his younger brother, Christopher Harris, back to his three-thousand-acre plantation, Cedar Grove, in Yazoo County. John McNitt Sharp, a Confederate officer, died four months later, and John Sharp’s step-grandmother assumed responsibility for raising the two boys. Williams received his elementary education in Yazoo City and Memphis, where he joined the Episcopal Church at the age of eleven. After completing his high school work, he graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute in 1870. After briefly enrolling at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, he spent three years at the University of Virginia, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar. He then studied in Germany and France for two years before returning to the University of Virginia Law School, earning a degree in 1876. He married Elizabeth Dial Webb of Livingston, Alabama, in October 1877, and the following year the young couple moved into the plantation home that his grandfather had built in 1834 and took charge of the Sharp family’s plantation. For the next fifteen years he supervised the farming operation at Cedar Grove and practiced law in nearby Yazoo City.
Williams undertook his first political campaign in 1890 but failed to win the Democratic nomination for Congress at the party’s district convention; two years later, he tried again and succeeded, going on to defeat a strong Populist opponent in the general election. Williams subsequently won reelection seven times, serving in the US House of Representatives from 1893 to 1909. The young congressman quickly earned respect with his keen intellect, his debating skills, and his sense of parliamentary courtesy and justice. A staunch advocate of a tariff for revenue only and free, unlimited coinage of silver, he opposed imperialistic policies and government ownership of railroads. He never straddled an issue and delighted reporters with his witty remarks and caustic rejoinders to Republican opponents.
His Democratic colleagues elected him minority leader in 1903, 1905, and 1907, and political observers credited him with transforming the party’s unruly and undisciplined House membership into a strong, cohesive force. Williams wanted the Democratic Party to adopt progressive policies that would attract independent voters and appeal to businessmen and organized labor in the North and Midwest. He publicized these concepts in his 1904 essays “What Democracy Now Stands For” and “Why Should a Man Vote the Democratic Ticket This Year?” He served as temporary chair of the 1904 Democratic National Convention, and his moderate views on financial and trade policies prevailed in the party’s platform. Williams supported Alton Parker for the party’s 1904 presidential nomination but supported William Jennings Bryan four years later, though Williams never admired the Great Commoner and opposed his stand on government ownership of railroads. As an influential party leader, Williams emphasized that differences among Democrats should not be magnified and that he thought Bryan was right about most things.
In 1907 Williams faced off against Gov. James K. Vardaman in the contest for the Democratic nomination to represent Mississippi in the US Senate. The race attracted national attention, with William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper chain supporting Vardaman and the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, and other leading newspapers endorsing Williams. Collier’s magazine sent author and war correspondent Frederick Palmer to cover the only debate between the two candidates. Williams disparaged Vardaman’s efforts to exploit racial prejudices and make repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment the primary campaign issue. Believing that it was unwise “for Southern statesmanship to narrow all of its efforts . . . to a futile or dangerous attempt to reinject the race question into the arena of congressional politics,” Williams thought “the South ought to take its part in solving the great questions of the day and . . . not occupy itself baying at the moon or in a thing equally useless and much more dangerous.” Williams defeated Vardaman by just 648 votes and received congratulatory messages from all sections of the country.
An early booster of Woodrow Wilson for the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination, Williams served on Wilson’s executive campaign committee and became one of the president’s most faithful supporters in the areas of both foreign policy and economic reform. When controversy arose over the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, Williams announced that he would vote to confirm Brandeis because a man’s views on academic questions should not disqualify him if he were honest and a good lawyer. Williams supported the president’s decision to hold Germany to strict accountability for the loss of American lives and property in submarine warfare and accused those who opposed a declaration of war in April 1917 of “grazing on the edge of treason.”
Like most white Mississippians and most white southerners, Williams believed in white political supremacy, but he did not exploit the race issue for personal gain. During his senatorial campaign against Vardaman, Collier’s reported that Williams “shared the feelings of his neighbors on the race question [but] had seen enough of other parts of the world . . . to look at the subject in the proper perspective.”
In 1916 Williams was reelected to the Senate without any opposition, but he did not seek a third term in 1922. In March 1923 he returned to his Mississippi plantation to read books, write letters, and enjoy retirement. He made his last formal address at the 12 October 1927 dedication of a bronze monument to Jefferson Davis at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Williams died on 27 September 1932 in the old plantation home of his childhood and was laid to rest in the family cemetery at Cedar Grove. The New York Times remembered him as “easy-going, chock-full of common sense, sociable and companionable, [and] utterly remote from the doctrinaire and the prig.”
- Harris Dickson, An Old Fashioned Senator (1925)
- George Coleman Osborn, John Sharp Williams: Planter-Statesman of the Deep South(1943)
- George C. Osborn Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- John Sharp Williams Papers, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi