James Lusk Alcorn

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James Lusk Alcorn

James Lusk Alcorn (1816-1894) was a prominent member of the Whig party in Mississippi before the Civil War. After the war he became a leader of the Republican party in his state and served as governor and U.S. senator during the Reconstruction period.

James Lusk Alcorn was born on Nov. 4, 1816, in Golconda, Ill., and raised across the Ohio River in Livingston County, Ky. Here as deputy sheriff under his uncle, he learned how to deal with lawlessness, earned a reputation for physical bravery, and studied law, receiving his license to practice in 1838.

In 1844 he traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the newly settled town of Delta in northwestern Mississippi. Aggressive and energetic in his law practice and in the acquisition of land, he quickly became a leading citizen. He joined the aristocratic Whig party and a year after his arrival was elected to the state legislature, where he served either as a representative or senator until 1857. He also became the foremost advocate of a centralized levee system to protect the rich delta lands of Mississippi from flooding.

During the period before the Civil War, Alcorn was a staunch unionist, but as a delegate at the secession convention he dramatically reversed his stand and voted for secession. After serving briefly as a state general, he retired to his plantation and limited his loyalty to his state, defying both the occupying Union Army and the Confederate government.

Considering the Republican party the successor to the Whig party, Alcorn joined it after the war, and he was elected governor in 1869. He made progress in reconstructing his war-torn state but had trouble handling the increasing violence inspired by the Ku Klux Klan. Although a former slave owner, he accepted the emancipation of the slaves and supported enfranchisement of African Americans, viewing them as a new lower class, like lowerclass whites, for whom he and others of his class would provide leadership. In 1871 he became a U.S. senator, but by this time another faction had formed in the Republican party advocating complete equality for African Americans. This split within the Republican party, plus a program of intimidation and violence by the Klan, enabled the Democrats to regain control of the state government in 1875. Since Alcorn, unlike many other former Whigs, refused to join the Democrats, his political career ended with the expiration of his term as senator in 1877. In 1890 he emerged from retirement to participate in the state convention which rewrote Mississippi's constitution that disfranchised African Americans. Alcorn died on Dec. 20, 1894, and was buried in the family cemetery on his plantation in the Mississippi Delta.

Further Reading

The only full-length biography of Alcorn is Lillian A. Pereyra, James Lusk Alcorn: Persistent Whig (1966), which emphasizes his public career. Material on Alcorn and Reconstruction can be found in James Wilford Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901). □

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James Lusk Alcorn