William McWillie migrated to Mississippi from South Carolina, but unlike many antebellum migrants, he did not come during his early childhood. McWillie moved to Mississippi during his middle years, after a very successful banking career in Camden, South Carolina. Born in the state’s Kershaw District on 17 November 1795, McWillie had also served four years in the South Carolina legislature.
In 1845 McWillie and his large family moved to Madison County, where he had purchased a plantation. He built a colonial-style mansion, Kirkwood, where he lavishly entertained most of Mississippi’s prominent citizens of that era.
Although most other wealthy planters were Whigs and generally opposed secession, McWillie was an ardent advocate of states’ rights and aligned himself with that wing of the Mississippi Democratic Party. He began his political career in Mississippi in 1849 by winning election to the US Congress as a Democrat in a Whig district. However, Whigs and Democrats formed the Union Party under Henry Foote to quash McWillie’s 1851 reelection bid.
At the 1857 Democratic Party convention McWillie received the party’s nomination for governor on the fourteenth ballot, winning by only three votes. He easily defeated the Whig candidate in the general election and was inaugurated on 16 November 1857.
In his inaugural address, McWillie alluded to the great sectional issues of slavery and states’ rights and predicted that secession of the slave states would become inevitable if those divisive issues were not resolved. Contending that northern reformers sought the “overthrow of the social institutions of the South,” he promised that Mississippians were “full ready, and willing and able to take care of ourselves in the Union if we can; out of it if we must.” He called on the nation’s leaders in both the North and the South to seek a solution to those issues.
During McWillie’s administration the levee system was greatly improved and railroad construction increased substantially, with the state purchasing stock in the newly organized railroads to encourage their growth. McWillie recommended the creation of a public school system with a state superintendent of education to supervise Mississippi’s free schools. He commended the legislature for supporting higher education for young men and urged legislators to do the same for Mississippi’s college-age women. However, the legislature did not enact any of this educational legislation. Just before McWillie’s term expired, John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry caused great alarm in Mississippi, and McWillie, fearing a large-scale slave revolt, persuaded the legislature to enlarge the state militia.
After leaving office in 1859, McWillie retired from public life and spent his remaining years at Kirkwood. He was an active supporter of the Confederacy, and his eldest son, Adam, was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run. McWillie died at Kirkwood on 3 March 1869.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Robert W. Dubay, John Jones Pettus, Mississippi Fire-Eater: His Life and Times, 1813–1867 (1975)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)