CORINTH INFORMATION DATABASE Version 1.3 © 1995 Milton Sandy, Jr.

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Corinth is located in Alcorn County, Mississippi, named for:

ALCORN, James Lusk: 1816-1894

James Lusk Alcorn, planter, politician, and governor, was born on 4 November 1816 near Golconda, Illinois. He grew up in Kentucky in a typical frontier community. His father, James Alcorn and mother (Louisa Lusk Alcorn) had followed the frontier tradition and migrated to Kentucky from South Carolina in 1810. Six years later, James Lusk, their first child was born. The father, ever very successful economically but with minor political successes (sheriff twice), must have imbued his son with his political interest; and their father's failure to succeed where the father had failed. An any rate, James Lusk Alcorn demonstrated early what were to be the two driving ambitions of his life: (1) The acquisition of wealth and (2) the display of leadership by political activity. Alcorn is known in Mississippi's political history for his opposition to secession, his switch to the Republican party during Reconstruction and his consistent support of levee-building in the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta; yet these are sub-themes to the two driving forces mentioned above.

His interest in political leadership developed early. A young man growing up in the Kentucky of the 1820's and 30's must have listened to some of the most exciting political debates of the Nation's history. It was the time of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson; Henry Clay's American System with its emphasis on a protective tariff, internal improvements, and a strong government contested with the more egalitarian frontier democracy of Andrew Jackson. Alcorn opted for the political philosophy of Henry Clay, becoming a Whig in the 1830's while in school at Cumberland College, Princeton, Kentucky. He remained consistent in his political philosophy for the rest of his life although he switched parties several times. The strong nationalism of Kentucky's Henry Clay's 1830's will be reflected in Alcorn's actions in Mississippi in the 1850's. After leaving college in 1836, he became deputy sheriff of Lexington County, Kentucky, and studied law. In 1836 he was admitted to the bar and the same year married Mary Catherine Stewart.

The panic of 1837 slowed the Western boom in land that had made the middle thirties the flush time of speculation and expansion in the United States; but by 1843-44 prosperity was beginning to return. In 1843, Alcorn had served one term in the Kentucky legislature but evidently he, like many frontiersmen, believed he could make his fortune more quickly in a new land; so when that term ended he loaded his wife and child and all his belongings on a flatboat and started down the Ohio and Mississippi River seeking his fortune. He was twenty-eight years old. The story is told that when he stopped a few miles below Memphis, Tennessee, at a small town called Delta in northern Mississippi he was met by a group of local citizens encouraging travelers to settle there. In the conversation he was addressed as "Colonel." He immediately went and told his wife that they would settle there. He chose the rich lands of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in Coahoma County, and lived there the rest of his life.

Mississippi in 1844, like the rest of the nation, was recovering from the panic of 1837, and the late forties and fifties were to see the height of the cotton kingdom in the state; great wealth was to be accumulated in land and slaves. Alcorn had arrived at a propitious moment. He immediately threw himself into his two great interests, money-making and politics. The frontier was an excellent place of business for an energetic talented young lawyer, and all the money that he made went into land. It was immediately obvious to Alcorn that the wealth and prominence that he desired were to be secured through the purchase of land and slaves, and the litigation brought to him as a lawyer gave him an avenue of knowledge about opportunities for speculation. Within two years he had moved his parents and sisters from Kentucky and settled them on a farm near him in Yazoo County, and within one year he had been elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives as a Whig. In 1845 Texas had just been annexed and the controversy with Mexico was moving inexorably toward war. Whether he was opposed to the war is unknown, but his opposition to Jefferson Davis was already in evidence as he was the only Representative in 1847 to cast a vote against Davis, the war hero, for the U.S. Senate seat.

Alcorn was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1848 and was a leader in the movement of the preservation of the Union during the events surrounding the Wilmot Proviso and the resolutions that lead to the Compromise of 1850. This is the same position that Alcorn took in the seccession crisis of 1860-61. For him this was a pragmatic, not an idealistic position. Like most large land-owning slave-holding Whigs, he believed his property could best be protected in the Union rather than out of it. He took an active part in all events of this struggle and helped found the Union Party composed of Whigs and Union-Democrats that were successful in electing Henry Foote governor in 1851 on a Union platform (Alcorn was reelected to the State Senate at the same time). The Union Party, however, helped to destroy the political base of the Whig Party. The Union Democrats quickly drifted away and with the structure of the party weakened, the pressure of events on a national level completed the destruction of the Whig Party. Alcorn campaigned for General Winfield Scott in 1852, but the state overwhelmingly voted for Franklin Pierce, and the Whig Party was dead although Alcorn's term in the Senate did not end until 1856. He briefly toyed with the Know Nothing Party in 1857, refusing their nomination for governor but running on their ticket for Congress as the representative from the First District only to be defeated by L. Q. C. Lamar.

Alcorn had achieved a national reputation by his fight during the Compromise period for the preservation of the Union; however, in Mississippi he also achieved a reputation as Chairman of the State House of Representatives' Committee on Internal Improvements by trying to find better ways to build levees for the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Like the good Whig that he was, he believed in a centralized system supported by funds from both the state and the federal government. A great deal of the extant writings of Alcorn are his various Levee Board reports and exhortations on the need for levees. He made a logical and economic case for the need for a centralized system but despite his years of work he was never completely successful. In the post war years he took his case to the Senate of the United States still using basically the same arguments with the same lack of success (only after the great flood, 1927, did Congress finally do what Alcorn had tried so hard fifty years earlier to accomplish). Written with clear language and compelling arguments, these technical writings of Alcorn demonstrate his pragmatic, thoughtful mind. His hopes for what he believed the levees could do are shown in the conclusion of his 1858 report of the Board of Levee Commissioners. He wrote: "Who can predict the coming wealth of that vast alluvial? To Mississippi it is, if cherished, an inestimable treasure. Wealth is power. The intelligence of her people; every intelligent proposition which has for its object the increase of knowledge, or the enhancement of aggregate wealth, should receive the calm judgment of the Legislature."

When the Civil War broke out the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was protected by 310 miles of levees, almost half of which had been constructed by the 1858 Levee District Board of which Alcorn was President. He could in one sense claim to be largely responsible for protecting four million acres of rich alluvial soil that produced 2,500,000 bags of cotton. Most of the levees were destroyed during the Civil War, and Alcorn from his plantation watched Grant dynamite the Yazoo Pass in an effort to get gunboats to Vicksburg, but the levee system in Mississippi today still owes a great deal to his pioneering efforts and writings.

The early fifties were also a time of personal change for Alcorn. His first wife died in 1849, and in 1850 he married Amelia Walton Glover of Rosemount plantation in southern Alabama. She and her family had already achieved the ideal towards which he was pushing. In the antebellum South the country gentleman ideal dominated the dreams of many young aggressive frontiersmen. They had not yet made the step from lawyer, doctor, businessman to gentleman-planter; yet they gave the system absolute allegiance because they expected to break into its ranks. Many never made it, but James L. Alcorn did, and marrying Amelia Walton Glover, whose marriage present from her father was twenty slaves, seemed to be a vital step along the way. The decade of the fifties was a very prosperous time for Mississippi; and Alcorn after his failure to be elected to Congress in 1857 devoted his considerable talents solely to his law practice and plantation. By the outbreak of the Civil War he was already a rich man.

In the secession crisis of 1860-61 he counseled moderation and fought against secession as long as possible. Elected to the Convention of 1861 that adopted the Ordinance of Secession, he cooperated with the conservatives in trying to stem the tide of secession. Seeing, however, that his efforts were futile, he, as usual, chose the pragmatic way and on the floor of the Convention, he reversed himself dramatically and cast his ballot for secession, saying, "I have thought that a different course...should have been adopted, and to that end I have labored and spoken. But the die is cast -the Rubicon is crossed- and I enlist in the Army that marches to Rome."

During the war he served as a Brigidier-General for about eighteen months. His service was undistinguished and he evidently hated military life. He returned to his plantation from which he constantly criticized Jefferson Davis' handling of military and civil affairs. He continued to be politically active during the war and also despite tremendous obstacles managed to keep his plantation operating. A practical man of business, he sold cotton to smugglers, saved his gold, and used his Confederate green-backs to buy more land. Thus, unlike most Southerners, he managed to emerge from the War with a financial base on which to build again, and his wealth was soon greater than before.

Probably his greatest service to the state came during the Reconstruction Period. He immediately returned to politics and was a part of every legislature or convention in the immediate post-war years. He also renewed his efforts both by speeches and participation to get the Yazoo-Mississippi levees rebuilt. As Governor, U.S. Senator, and private citizen, he consistently pursued this goal. For instance, he was one of three commissioners appointed by the Convention of 1865 to travel to Washington to try to get aid for rebuilding the levees. Unsuccessful in this attempt, Alcorn nevertheless used this opportunity to assess the national political scene. In the same year he also traveled to Washington to seek a special pardon, since he owned too much property to come under the general amnesty. Astute observer that he was, he immediately recognized that the South was going to have to grant some civil and political franchise rights to its Negro citizens. In a letter to his wife from Washington, he stated that necessity, and prophetically stated that Southerners must make the Negro their friend or the path ahead would be "red with blood and damp with tears."

With this insight, it is not surprising to see James L. Alcorn become probably Mississippi's most prominent scalawag and the first Republican Governor of the state. Ardently opposed to the Democracy all his life, it was easy for him to move to a new party with a strong business outlook and the intent to use the Black vote to keep in power those he thought should be in power, i.e., an aristocracy of wealth that included himself. Alcorn steadily moved toward Negro suffrage, and in so doing alienated conservatives in the state and appeared to be more and more radical when in reality he probably was more conservative than they. But he was a practical realist; he embodied the practical businessman's ability to shift with changing times while his colleagues clung to a dead past. Although in the long run Alcorn was defeated, that defeat fastened a second hundred year burden on the back of the state and section that he loved. Hindsight, of course, is always easy, but it would appear that had Alcorn been able to establish a viable Republican Party composed of Conservative white Southerners and Blacks the progressive South of today would have appeared one hundred years earlier. Passions, however, outweighed practicality.

Alcorn began his push in the direction of suffrage in August, 1867, when he issued a pamphlet entitled Views of the Hon. J. L. Alcorn on the Political Situation of Mississippi. In this pamphlet he seemed to be calling for a new party that would bargain with the Radicals in Congress, and he stated that Mississippi could not afford two parties based on racial distinction. He concluded his appeal with this statement about Blacks: "All that Congress has given him I accept as his with all my heart and conscience, I propose to vote with him, to discuss political affairs with him; to sit, if need be, in political counsel 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."

Unable to get his erstwhile supporters to join with him in what seemed to them incredible folly, Alcorn had no place to go but the Republican Party. By 1868 he was openly working with the Republicans. He was an avowed candidate for Governor by the summer of 1869 and in September of that year accepted the gubernatorial nomination from the Republican Convention. He campaigned vigorously, was elected, and took office in March of 1870. Much of his victory was due to the support of the Military Commander of the Fourth Military District, Adelbert Ames, who was also the provisional governor of the state. Ames was identified with the radical wing of the Republican Party, and he and Alcorn soon became bitter enemies as they contested for control of the Republican Party in Mississippi. The first legislature that met after Alcorn's election elected Adelbert Ames to the Senate for a full term and Hiram Revels, a black minister from Natchez, for the short one year term ending in March, 1871. Alcorn, even before being inaugurated as governor, was elected for the full term beginning March, 1871; thus he entered his office expecting to be there only one year.

A fair-minded assessment of Alcorn's administration would admit that he did a credible job under incredible difficulties. He got the State back on its feet financially, made repairs to ruined public buildings, expanded the court system, and inagurated a system of public education that, even though rudimentary and segregated, did reach into all parts of the state. However, before the end of his first year criticism against the school system mounted and the Ku Klux Klan engaged in increasing violence against the Negro schools. This violence gave critics of the Alcorn administration an excuse to appeal to Washington, particularly to Adelbert Ames, for help, asking for federal troops. Alcorn consistently maintained that there was no organized Klan activity, even after pushing through the Legislature an act outlawing the wearing of masks and disguises, and creating a "special contingency fund" to investigate acts of violence. No doubt he was trying to prevent federal troops being sent to the state and also to prevent Adelbert Ames from having an excuse to interfere. Congress, however, passed the Enforcement Act, and in the summer of 1871 a Congressional Investigating Committee came to Mississippi. Alcorn realized he would have to remain in the state until after the fall election to retain control of the party so he refused to take his Senate seat in March and postponed it until November of 1871. Thus from March 1871 to November 1871 he was not only Governor, but Senator-elect. The rivalry between Ames and Alcorn became more intense as Ames returned to Mississippi to campaign in the fall elections. Ostensibly campaigning together against the Democrats, it was obvious that the two were jockeying for position, thus moving the Republican Party towards the factionalism that would help to destroy it. Following the election, Alcorn resigned as Governor, left the governorship to the Lieutenant Governor, Ridgely Powers, and went to Washington to take his Senatorial seat. In Washington, Mississippi's two Senators spent their time arguing with each other on the Senate floor rather than working together for the benefit of the State.

Ames considered himself the champion of the Negro and civil rights. An idealist, he could not abide the practical moderate position of Alcorn. Alcorn had a comparable antipathy to Ames, who he thought was an outsider using the Blacks and carpetbaggers for his own political advancement. In Mississippi and in Washington the two struggled, and when Ames was able to get the gubernatorial nomination of the Republican Party in August of 1873, Alcorn was appalled, having expected it to go to Governor Powers. Two days later he announced to the same convention that he would also run for governor, and campaigned against Ames as an outsider, accusing his supporters of dishonesty. He hoped for White conservative support to "save" the state from Ames, but his defeat meant the end of any hope for a native Republican Party.

Alcorn remained in the Senate, however, where he continued to support internal improvements, particularly levee-building, but with little success. He opposed the Radicals in the South but consistently supported the positions of the Republican Party. He campaigned in Mississippi in 1876 for Hayes and in that contested election he cast his vote on a straight party line. Following the action in the spring of 1877, he departed from state and national politics, returned to Coahoma County, and spent the rest of his life attending to business and family. In 1879 he built a twenty-two room Victorian mansion named "Eagle's Nest" at Jonestown, where he owned twenty thousand acres of land. He may have failed to achieve what he desired in politics, but he desired to be.

Before his death on 20 December 1894, he emerged briefly from political retirement to participate in the Constitutional Convention of 1890. Ever the practical realist, he voted for the clauses that disenfranchised the Blacks even though twenty years before he had worked for their enfranchisement. Unlike Ames, his support had never been based on principle but on expediency. His actions were in character with his life, as are all of his extant writings. An examination of the tracts, brochures, and political speeches show the two consistent themes of his life-practical politics and business acumen. Although bitterly criticized, he served his state well. He was widely respected by his Southern compatriots, and it would appear that if Alcorn, with his background, ability and integrity, could not take his state into the twentieth century, then no one could. His failure meant the failure of his State and region.

Martha Mitchell Bigelow



Source:

Data transcription by: Kossuth High School Typing Students of Cheryl Hurley, Spring, 1993.



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