William McWillie: Twenty-second Governor of Mississippi: 1857-1859
William McWillie migrated to Mississippi from South Carolina, but, unlike most other antebellum Mississippians who migrated to the state, he did not come during his early childhood. McWillie moved to Mississippi during his middle years after a successful banking career in Camden, South Carolina. McWillie, who was born in the Kershaw District of South Carolina on November 17, 1795, had also served four years in the South Carolina Legislature.
In 1845, McWillie and his family moved to Madison County where he had purchased a plantation. He built a colonial style mansion called Kirkwood, where he lavishly entertained most of Mississippi’s prominent citizens of that era.
Although most other wealthy planters were Whigs who 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 when he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat in a Whig district. But in 1851 he was defeated by a combination of Whigs and Democrats who formed the Union Party under Henry Foote.
At the Democratic Party Convention in 1857, McWillie was given the party’s
nomination for governor on the fourteenth ballot by a majority of only
three votes. He easily defeated the Whig candidate in the general election.
Under the provisions of the 1855 constitutional amendment, Governor McWillie
was inaugurated November 16, 1857.
During Governor McWillie’s administration the levee system was
greatly improved and railroad construction increased substantially. The
growth of the railroads was encouraged largely because the state purchased
stock in newly organized companies. Governor McWillie recommended a statewide
public school system and the creation of a state superintendent of education
to supervise Mississippi’s free schools. He commended the legislature
for supporting higher education for the young men of the state and urged
them to do the same for Mississippi’s college-age women. The legislature
did not enact any of the educational legislation he recommended.
After Governor McWillie left office in 1859, he 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 in the first Battle of Bull Run. Governor McWillie died at Kirkwood on March 3, 1869.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Posted December 2003
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1552.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 69.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II. 207-212.
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