Biography of James Lusk Alcorn

James Lusk Alcorn, was born in Illinois, November 4, 1816. He was the descendant of an Alcorn who came from the north of Ireland and settled at Philadelphia, Pa., in 1721. James Alcorn, father of the governor, married Louisa Lusk, a native of South Carolina, removed to Kentucky, was a county sheriff there as he had been in Illinois, operating boats on the Mississippi before the advent of steam power, and was one of the pioneer steamboat captains. He was lieutenant of a boatman’s company in the war of 1812, and commanded a company at the battle of New Orleans. About 1846 he made his home in Coahoma county, where he died in 1859. James Lusk Alcorn was reared in Kentucky and educated at Cumberland college. After teaching school in Arkansas he was deputy sheriff of Livingston county five years, and served one term in the legislature, after which he came to Delta, Coahoma county, a town that gave way to the river years ago, and began the practice of law. He became one of the prominent young men of the State. Making Friar’s Point his place of residence, he practiced in several adjoining counties. He was a representative in the legislature in 1846 and 1856, and senator in 1852 and 1854; was an elector for the State at large on the Scott ticket in 1852; was nominated for governor by the Whigs in 1857, but declined and accepted nomination for Congress. His joint canvass against L. Q. C. Lamar that year was famous in the political history of the State, Alcorn demonstrating remarkable information and power of original thought, and force as an orator. The Democratic predominance, however, prevented his success. His great work was the founding of the State levee system, which owed its origin mainly to his enterprise and persistence. He was the author of the law and at the head of the superintending board for several years, and through his efforts the Delta was opened to agriculture and the wealth of the State vastly increased before the year 1860. His law business also grew to large importance, and he became one of the greatest cotton planters of the South. In 1851 and 1861 he strongly opposed secession, but as a member of the convention of 1861 signed the ordinance. In the military organization of the State he served as a brigadier-general, rendered important service in the military preparations, and in the latter part of 1861 took a small brigade to Hopkinsville, Ky., most of which with his encouragement enlisted in the service of the Confederate States. (See Army of Mississippi.) He was afterward with General Polk and General Clark, was taken prisoner at Helena, Ark., and paroled there in 1864. At the expiration of his parole he was made colonel of a Mississippi command on special duty along the river. At the beginning of the war, also, he fitted out, from his own means, the company commanded by his son, Capt. Milton Alcorn, who was later promoted to major in Johnston’s army. One of his sons died as a prisoner of war.

In 1864, Governor Clark called upon him to return to the military service and take command of the State troops. At the reorganization of the State government he was elected to the legislature and he and William L. Sharkey were elected to the United States senate; but Congress refused to ‘admit them.

At the time of the quarrel between Congress and President Johnson he cautioned the people of Mississippi to stand neutral. In a public letter on the subject of the Philadelphia convention, he said, ” Make no alliances. Stand aloof from all entanglements of party.” His advice was not heeded, of which he said afterward, in the vehemence of political debate, that “The Jackson clique flung the State, in the teeth of my admonition, into the arms of a foregone failure. In this I arraign the clique of a brainlessness which has been visited upon us in all the severity of the terms of Congressional reconstruction.” As defiance on the part of the State was followed by additional requirements, he wrote his Hernando letter of 1867, pleading that a hopeless contest should not continue. He said “The colored man comes, as well as the white man, within the scope of my proposed negotiation. . . I propose to vote with him’ to discuss political affairs with him, and from a platform acceptable alike to him, to me, and to you, to pluck our common liberty and our common prosperity out of the jaws of inevitable ruin.” Consequently he took part in the organization of the Republican party and was nominated for governor in 1869 and elected.

This open bid for negro support made Alcorn very unpopular with Democrats and Whigs alike and caused them to oppose him as an enemy to good government. He really thought that he could control and direct the negroes and make them good citizens, but he soon learned that they were controlled by the leaders who bribed them with promises of public plunder. Alcorn soon saw the terrible menace of negro suffrage, and, in the Constitutional Convention of 1890 was an advocate of disfranchisement.

He wrote to a friend a few years before his death: “To me there is a regret that will go with me to the grave that I could not have served the people of Mississippi and of the South more profitably than I did. I had studied the question of reconstruction. I had studied the temper of the Northern people and I had determined to yield to the inevitable. I bore with great patience the complaints and abuse of the people who criticised my course. It was but natural. Their words were but the language of my own heart when I gave way to my passions. . . If I had been elected to the office of governor in 1873 I would have vindicated myself in the judgment of all thinking men.” (Letter to F. A. Montgomery, 1891). His later purpose doubtless included a realization that extraneous influence had begun to relax in 1873. But, as he said to friends in the campaign of 1873, he could not make public the reasons why he should be given another opportunity as governor.

Henry S. Foote wrote of him as possessing a “natural vigor of intellect, remarkable industry and thorough knowledge of law. . . . His active and successful career as a politician brought him prominently before the public, and his genial temper and fascinating manners surrounded him with numerous admiring friends. He was, of course, bitterly opposed in reconstruction times, but he was actuated by the highest motives, and as his policy was not given a fair trial, it cannot be said to have lacked promise, or to have failed. In later years J. F. H. Claiborne wrote of him: ” He is now generally appreciated as a man of unquailing courage and indomitable enterprise; a patriot without stain, a statesman of extraordinary sagacity, called to the helm at the most trying period, to confront a disorganized and morbid public sentiment, to crush out old creeds, ideals and predilections; to guide by persuasion or force a proud, intelligent, yet distrustful people into new grooves of thought and action. The last remnant of bitterness against Governor Alcorn was buried during the constitutional convention of 1890, in which his course was so broad and liberal and patriotic as to open the eyes of the people to the true greatness of his character.” His later years were passed, except for this service, in retirement, at Eagle’s Nest, his plantation home in Coahoma, where he died December 20, 1894.

Back to: Mississippi History

Source: Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, by Dunbar Rowland.

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