Joseph Warren Matthews was a plain and unlettered frontiersman who lacked the flair for oratory that many Mississippians expected from their statesmen. During the 1847 governor’s race, Matthews, a Democrat and surveyor by trade, was jeered by the more aristocratic Whigs, who called him “Jo Salem,” “Jo the well digger,” and “Old copperas breeches,” all of which were references to his common background. But Mississippi apparently had more plain folks than aristocrats, because Matthews defeated his Whig opponent by thirteen thousand votes.
Matthews had come to Mississippi from Alabama, where he was born near Huntsville in 1812. He settled near the town of Salem, in Tippah County (now Marshall County). Matthews was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1840 and to the State Senate four years later. In 1847 the Democratic Party nominated him as its candidate for governor on the third ballot.
By the time Matthews was inaugurated on 10 January 1848, Mississippi’s economy had recovered from the Panic of 1837, and the Mexican War had created another period of prosperity for the Cotton Kingdom. Matthews proclaimed in his inaugural address, “Our citizens are most free from debt, our storehouses abound with plenty [and] our march is onward and upwards toward prosperity and happiness.”
Matthews’s administration was almost entirely free from the political turmoil that had so often characterized Mississippi politics. That relative tranquillity resulted largely from popular excitement and preoccupation with the war with Mexico and the general prosperity of the late 1840s.
Although Matthews’s two years in office were free from controversy, they were not uneventful. During his administration, the state adopted a new legal code and established an institution for the blind, and the University of Mississippi opened for its first session in the fall of 1848. The Jackson-Brandon railroad also began operation, and telegraph service became available in Jackson and other parts of the state.
The Mexican War and the admission of California to statehood agitated the slavery issue, and the Mississippi Democrats passed over Matthews in 1851 and nominated Gen. John Anthony Quitman, the hero of Mexico.
After his term expired, Matthews retired from politics, although he served briefly in the Confederate diplomatic corps during the Civil War. Matthews died on 27 August 1862 in Palmetto, Georgia.
- 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 Governors Mansion (1977)