Mississippi Politics of the 1840s: Two Whigs

Newspapers were the “arm of democracy,” highly partisan, and intended to spread political messages throughout the United States. Until the 1845 Postal Act the Postal Service considered the spread of democratic ideas and politics their mission. This 1845 Southern Reformer from Hinds County, MS clearly promotes its Democratic party logo at the top of the page in its 1845 publication.

Canal and railroad building, turnpikes and road improvement, steamboats plying waterways, manufacturing growth — all a backdrop to U.S. national politics during the 1840s. Political issues of this decade distracted from and would, late in the decade, fuel what would eventually become the most divisive issue in the nation, the issue of slavery. The decade began with the nation struggling to recover from the Panic of 1837. Banking, tariffs, and territorial expansion dominated political rhetoric. The major political parties of the era were the Whigs and the Democrats. The Whig Party formed during the 1830s, organizing in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s closing of the National Bank. Still, Whig “culture” involved much more than economic ideology. Whigs sought to make society function in an orderly and progressive fashion by promoting commercial enterprises, improved infrastructure, public education, temperance, and an instructive national literature. In general the party supporters were of British heritage and Protestant. Though the abolitionist movement became associated with Whig culture, it would not prevent some southern slaveholders from promoting Whig ideals. Two correspondents in the Duncan McLaurin Papers are Mississippi pro-slavery southerners who call themselves Whigs: John P. Stewart of Franklin County and Duncan McKenzie of Covington, County.  

The Tippecanoe Club was a local Whig gathering in Franklin County, MS. Whigs had also taken up the Harrison/Tyler campaign slogan, “Old Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” William Henry Harrison was a hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, a battle between the U.S. government and Native Americans in the Indiana Territory. Image from newspapers.com.


The Whig “Log Cabin” candidate, William Henry Harrison, was nominated for the office of the Presidency of the United States in the summer of 1840. His opponents had dubbed him so in order to convey the image of a man who would rather sit in his log cabin and drink hard cider than work to meet the needs of the people of the U.S. Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler usurped this negative image created by the opposition and made it work for them. In fact, in July of 1840 a Mississippian born in North Carolina, John P. Stewart, writes to his former school teacher and friend, Duncan McLaurin, describing the election fervor in Mississippi. He describes a “Log Cabin Raising” in the Western counties near Natchez. Stewart writes that folks are predicting a close race between the Whig Harrison and his opponent, the incumbent President Martin Van Buren, upon whom the Whigs placed blame for the Panic of 1837. The ensuing depression in Mississippi brought down the price of cotton and had a detrimental effect on property sales. It also spurred migration from that state by those who could not pay their debts when loans were called by the state banks. Though the Whigs have been called the party of the wealthier property owners in the South, Stewart and Duncan McKenzie would not have been classified as such. Their early 1840s letters indicate a decidedly Whig political inclination. John P. Stewart describes the summer of the election of 1840 in Mississippi:

The presidential Election is the all absorbing topic

of conversation and discussion amongst us — Log Cabin Raising

is the order of the day in the Western counties — there is to be

a raising today within 7 miles of Natchez at which there

will be a considerable turn out and display — a cabin is

to be erected on the bluff at Natchez on the 15th proximo

Both parties are organizing in the State for the contest in

November next the battle will be a close one both parties claim

the ascendancy Our Whig Brethren appear to be confident of

carrying the State — But I am of opinion that it will be

doubtful — You know a great many persons can see but one

Side of the question — We have unquestionably gained several

Several hundred to our Ranks but we may also have lost some – John P. Stewart

Duncan McKenzie offers his opinion on the prospects of Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in a July 1840 letter. He says, “I hope Mi — will build her log cabin ere long — There are many old hard headed demos bending under the roof of the hard cider & log cabin candidate.” Evidently, the banking issue and economy in Mississippi is changing perspectives. Mississippi had heretofore predominately voted Democrats into office. 

According to this post, a live raccoon was an attraction at the Nashville Convention. The opinion in The Weekly Mississippian at Jackson in October of 1840 heralds the drowning of Tip the raccoon after the convention. Whether or not the poor raccoon experienced a metaphorical or physical death is unclear.

Apparently, when the Whigs embraced the negative use of the log cabin image, they also usurped the western image of the coonskin cap by making the raccoon a symbol of Whiggery. However, as early as 1834 the word coon was being used to refer to blacks. The source supposedly came from the word barracoon, the name of the holding pens for slaves. The term “coon” would maintain an increasingly racial connotation even after the Whig party, inclusive of abolitionism, disappeared. On the other hand the rooster as the Democratic party symbol has generally been replaced by the donkey or “Jackass.” In the same way, the Democrats of the 1840s usurped the negative Whig description of one of its speakers “crowing” by using the rooster symbol. 

On the left the raccoon in the moonlight is clearly touting a positive message for Henry Clay. On the left the raccoon appears to be frustrated that the Democrat Rooster will not crow. John P. Stewart references a political rally during which the Whigs, “threw down the gauntlet,” but the Democrats, “refused to take it up.” from Google Images.


Stewart and McKenzie offer some evidence of the growth of political party structure in Mississippi that was rather loose during the early years of statehood. The Whig party, which began around 1834 in opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats closing the Second Bank of the United States, had philosophically shunned party structure, though it was inevitably evolving.

Whigs nationwide had been coalescing in support of a national bank that could regulate currency and tariffs that would raise prices on imported foreign manufactured goods. The idea was to have credit available to start businesses through the banks issuing paper money. This included buying land for commercial farms. In addition, farmers needed credit to put in crops that would not come to fruition for many months. Whigs believed that manufacturers in the North and commercial farmers in the South would benefit from a national bank to encourage banking regulation. Whigs also supported foreign tariffs that would allow domestic manufacturers to compete for the sale of their products. Tariffs would also be a source of revenue to support government infrastructure such as transportation and programs like public schools. In contrast, Southern Democrats were decidedly against tariffs that raised the price on imported manufactured goods. Imports tended to be cheaper without a tariff and sold to a ready market in the rural, less industrial South. Other Whig supported issues did find a following in the south. Among them were temperance, availability of mental health institutions, public education, and transportation improvements. The abolition of slavery, supported by the national Whig party, would not significantly divide southern from northern Whigs for another decade or more.

Democrats also were generally inclined nationwide to follow Andrew Jackson’s negative attitude toward a national bank. Democratic President Andrew Jackson issued his Specie Circular executive order in 1836 to combat inflation caused by land speculation and easy credit in purchasing land in the new western states, including Mississippi. According to Christopher Olsen, “President Jackson’s Specie Circular and the Deposit Act leveled the state’s (Mississippi’s) financial house of paper.” The Specie Circular required metallic currency in payment for federal land, and the Deposit Act distributed money made from federal land purchases to the states. However, the amount Mississippi received of this federal money was insufficient to cover the amount the banks had loaned. As a result the state banks were forced to call in loans. Panic followed when state banks began demanding that loan payments be made in metallic currency. Upon issuance of the circular, people also began hoarding metallic currency, eventually making it scarce. In addition, with scarce sources of metallic wealth, the amount of actual gold and silver on hand in the United States would have difficulty covering the demand nationwide. When people could not pay back their loans, banks failed. Depression followed.

Until the early 1830s, about the time Duncan McKenzie migrated from North Carolina to Mississippi, the state had one bank. The number had grown to around fourteen by the Panic of 1837, according to Clifford Thies author of “Repudiation in Antebellum Mississippi.” In 1837 the Brandon Bank and in 1838 the Mississippi Union Bank were created to stabilize Mississippi’s economy. The Union bank had been authorized by the Democrat Governor A. G. McNutt, who gave the bank authority to issue five million dollars in bonds. When the price of cotton did not rise as expected, the state tried to render the bonds worthless and stopped interest payments. McNutt preferred repudiation of the state bonds, but others in the state fought to make payment. The issue of whether or not the state would “repudiate” its debt at first enjoyed some party fluidity with elements of bond-payers and anti-bonders in both parties. In their correspondence Mississippians Duncan McKenzie and John P. Stewart appear to have supported bond payment as a moral matter that placed the state’s reputation on the line.

The Natchez Weekly Courier in 1843 published this decidedly Whig opinion of why many favored repudiation of the Union Bank’s debt. Notice that Hanson Alsbury is “now a citizen of Texas.”

This was the issue that enthralled Mississippians in the first half of the 1840s. It was argued on one side that repudiation of the debt was the only answer since the people of Mississippi would never support the taxation needed to pay off the bonds. In contrast, others argued that repudiation was morally inept and would ruin the economic reputation of the state if their creditors, both domestic and foreign, went unpaid. The repudiation argument crossed party lines and did not cause any significant partisan divide between Whigs and Democrats. By the mid-1840s the question of Mexico would, for a time, unite the people of the state against a common enemy. However, the term Locofoco begins to appear in the Stewart and McKenzie correspondence during the early 1840s. The moniker referred first to a Democratic party faction in New York City that was anti-Tammany Hall. In Mississippi the term seems to be used more loosely in the correspondence as a more derogatory term for Democrats in general.

John P. Stewart in July of 1840 describes the effects of the banking and Specie Circular difficulties in Mississippi. He says the people of Mississippi in general do not wish to have an exclusive metallic currency. He explains, “if the Bank paper was driven entirely from circulation I do not believe (whether) one half of its Citizens could pay its debts.” Stewart deems it reasonable and justified by his own experience, “That the same policy that would suit a poor man would suit nineteen twentieths of the people of all classes.” He goes on to explain that “an exclusive Metallic Currency would suit only rich men that are out of debt, an animal in this State properly classed as rare aira (rare air).” The Democrats, or what he calls, “the illegitimate offspring of democracy called Locofocoism,” in his view simply do not understand the economic problems.

In September of 1840 Duncan McKenzie mentions an upcoming “Whig barbecue on the 9th of next month at which there will be some speech making &c.” Evidently the Whigs are getting much more support in the state. In December, after the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren in the presidential election, McKenzie says, “There appears to be a stimulant in all kind of business and trade, whether attributable to the overthrow of Vanburenism, we suppose it is.” He disparages that his home state of North Carolina has been, “led by the childish whims of John C. Calhoun who has veered to every point in the compass save that which was right.” McKenzie appears to relish Democratic disappointment: “the locofocos here (in MS) hang their lips and look as if all was not well with them.”

However, Whig glory of prevailing in the presidential election was short-lived, for Harrison died of pneumonia about a month after his inauguration. His successor was Vice-President John Tyler, setting the precedent of vice-presidential succession. Tyler found favor with neither Whig nor Democrat. The president at first appeared to support Whig interests except for Henry Clay’s national banking act. Clay, known politically as “Harry of the West,” was a centrist. Duncan McKenzie takes a shot at Tyler in June of 1841 when he writes, “I hear an ill omen, it is this that President Tyler has placed his veto (of) the Bank which if true has blasted the hopes of the American people.” It had been the hope of the Whigs that Harrison’s administration would be able to create a new national bank. McKenzie goes on to predict that Tyler will betray southern Whigs by allying himself with the abolitionist faction of the party. In October of 1841 McKenzie writes, “The present President has done more to break down the Whig cause in Miss — than all the Presidents that preceded him, query is he a knave or a fool or is he tinctured with both.”

In December of 1841 John P. Stewart writes that the anti-bond party (Democrats – the party of A. G. McNutt) won the election with a large majority, giving them a majority in both branches of the Mississippi legislature. Whigs, however, were able to elect a Secretary of State. Stewart also accuses and disparages some Democrats of changing their positions from bond-payers to repudiators when they felt the political wind blowing against them. In contrast, Stewart praises the Democratic nominee for governor, who favored payment of the bonds. His party’s lack of support did not inspire this particular nominee to change his politics. Instead he declined to run if his party would not support him. As a result of his political honesty and authenticity, this candidate had been voted into the legislature as a bond payer.

Stewart continues to explain which socioeconomic groups were bond-payers or were repudiators, “It is a singular fact that all the large taxpayers were almost universally in favor of the payment.” On the other hand, he continues, the people who were not taxpayers were, “almost unanimously opposed to it.” At this point Stewart is hopeful that the bonds will be paid despite the anti-bond majority in the legislature. According to Stewart, the Mississippi legislature led by the Democrats passed, “a string of Resolutions denouncing the Bankrupt Bill the Distribution bill the loan bill and approved the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.” He explains that the Whigs wanted a separate vote on each bill and walked out when this did not happen. The legislature did not put the Union Bank into liquidation.

Economic conditions in Mississippi declined after the banks in New Orleans failed. John P. Stewart writes, “We have arrived at an exclusive Specie currency in this state since the fall of the New Orleans Banks.” Some he says that were opposed to banks issuing paper currency now believe that paper is better than no currency at all. Specie was rare in the state, and Stewart quips that folks are saying, “By Jones … Specie is good but Divil a bit of it can we get & it is better to have even Brandon money than no money at all.” The Brandon Bank, the Mississippi & Alabama RR and Banking Company at Brandon, MS, was supposed to improve transportation infrastructure by building a railroad from Jackson east to Alabama. In the end the bank became too overwhelmed with loans to planters when the price of cotton failed to recover. The Bank’s cashier had “Gone to Texas.”

“Rogue Benton’s Mint Drops”

Mississippians during these years resorted to bartering goods rather than using currency since any type was very scarce. Duncan McKenzie writes in July of 1842 that, “all the Banks of Miss are dead long since … and specie is not sufficient in circulation to pay postage and a fair specimen of Rogue Bentons Mint drops.” “Rogue Bentons mint drops” likely refers to Missouri U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s proposal of the use of metallic currency instead of paper money. Common metal tokens were unofficially circulated in mockery of the use of specie. John P. Stewart says of specie that it, “has mostly fallen into old Stockings and Misers chests and will there remain without doing any service to the owners or any person else.” Stewart continues to describe the prices of property and hiring:

We have no fixed value for property amongst us — property

generally has fallen fifty per cent in price within the last year

the prices of Negroes is nominal they will not even sell on a

credit to punctual men — I am apprehensive that the worst times

have not yet come — White laborers can now be hired at about six dollars

per month only half of the wages they could get at the hardest

times for getting money before this season. – John P. Stewart

Perhaps due to prevalent hard times caused by Democratic administrations both local and national, the Whig party maintained a Mississippi contingent. Since the Whig party supported the interests of business, it received strong support in the Natchez District, the home of a number of plantation owners. These wealthy men not only had an interest in the business of growing and exporting cotton, but often had other northern business interests as well such as manufacturing or shipping. Thus, John P. Stewart mentions a Whig publication in Natchez, The Natchez Courier. The opposing Democrat leaning paper in the area was The Mississippi Free Trader. By July of 1840 and likely due to the depressed economy, the newspaper that supported the Democratic cause was out of business in Natchez. The Whig Natchez Courier just barely hung on, though it managed to survive:

The Natchez Courier a Whig paper published in the hot bed

of Aristocratic Whiggery had a hard struggle for its life at the

time of death of its opponent they were so hard run for printers

that the Editor although not a practical printer had to put his own

Shoulder to the wheel. – John P. Stewart

Duncan McKenzie, in 1840, also mentions a small newspaper called The Snag Boat that was printed in the office of The Raymond Times. Evidently Duncan reads the Times as he describes its editors as, “the best Whig writers of the county.” A. K. McClung is singled out of this group by McKenzie.

Repudiation of the state debts was front and center in the 1843 Mississippi governor’s election. Stewart indicates that three candidates for governor were an anti-bond Democrat, a bond paying democrat and a Whig. The anti-bond candidate and the Whig were campaigning together. Stewart claims the Democratic party was divided into three factions: one that seeks to repudiate all state bonds, a second in favor of repudiating the Union Bank and the Planters Bank bonds, and the third is in favor of paying both. McKenzie, in a letter of the same year, agrees with Stewart’s assessment. Stewart accuses the repudiating candidates of ignoring the state bond question and campaigning on national issues, though the bond payers apparently will not leave the issue alone. He reports that a Democratic repudiating editor was killed by one of his own party. Apparently, Stewart is referring to Dr. James Hagan, editor of The Vicksburg Sentinal, who supported Governor McNutt and the Democrats. The young man who shot Hagan was tried and acquitted on a claim of self-defense. Stewart also writes that a, “repudiating State Treasurer ran off last spring with some $54,000 of the dear peoples money.” He probably refers here to Mississippi Treasurer Richard S. Graves, who was impeached and arrested for accepting federal funds in his own name that were meant for the state. He was jailed for this but escaped disguised as his visiting wife. His wife later joined him in Canada but returned to deliver treasury warrants, treasury notes, and gold to Governor Tucker. The amount Stewart references here is likely the part Graves did not return. Years later R. S. Graves and his wife were denied a forgiveness request to return to Mississippi.

During 1843, Duncan McKenzie’s letters continually bash the “Locofocos” and praise the Whigs as the morally superior party. In a much more dramatic rhetoric than Stewart, McKenzie writes the following:

you congratulate me on the prospect of our states throwing

off the shackles of dishonesty which she fastened on to …

by her repudiation. query will an acknowledgement at

this late hour wipe off the infamy from the vile party whoes

measure it was, in fact it is only a drop from the buckit

when compared with the mass of corruption nursed and

Cherished by the same foul sordid Locofoco party, …

it is true there are many a sordid wretch in the whig ranks and

occasionally we promote a treacherous one but I am proud

to say that as a party their measures are honest and will

bear the test of experience … god save the state and curse the demagogues.

-Duncan McKenzie

Regarding Mississippi politics, in 1844 Duncan McKenzie offers another reason that the Whig party continued to receive support in the South. Temperance is one of the Whig cultural values that apparently survived the party into the twentieth century. McKenzie also references the perceived moral superiority of his political inclinations when he says in partisan rhetoric, “you also know that the Locos are fond of liquor … you know they (Locos) call the Whigs the decency party and of course they claim the opposite to which they are welcome and I verily think entitled.” As for Mississippi’s temperance politics, he also mentions that Locofoco H. S. Foote is going to make a political speech nearby. Foote is the former author of the Gallon Law, a law restricting alcohol consumption. McKenzie points out that Foote was a Whig when the law passed but is now a Loco, supporting its repeal. During the summer of 1845 McKenzie says, “Temperance meetings and speeches even barbecue are frequent and many are signing the pledges, in fact dram drinking is becoming quite unpopular throughout this region of country.” This did not, however, indicate that the Whig political party was prevailing in the state. According to Daniel Walker Howe, author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs, “there is a striking contrast between the brief life of their party and the lasting influence of their culture.” It was a culture that promoted an educated, moral, and religious populace capable of promoting business, economic stability, and justice in the nation.

In national politics of 1843 the Whigs in Mississippi, “with very few exceptions are in favor of Harry of the West (Henry Clay),” writes John P. Stewart. However, he also indicates that opinions on particular issues sometimes cross party lines, “Some few of the Free Trade Whigs I believe would support Calhoun but there are more National Bank Democrats than Calhoun Whigs.” As regards the 1843 election of Judges of the Court of Appeals, Stewart laments that Mississippi in its Constitution of 1832 required the election of members of the judicial branch:

Many of those formerly in favor of elect(ing) the

Judges by the people have become convinced that the system will not answer

it will not do to have Judges dependant on the will of the people for their offices —

Many of them electioneer whilst on the bench I have seen them do it

– John P. Stewart

John P. Stewart was elected Circuit Clerk of Franklin County, MS for multiple terms of office and would likely have had the opportunity to observe judicial activity. Not only did the electioneering of judges distract from from deciding issues based on the law, but the banking situation in the state might have been more efficiently regulated and dealt with had public political pressure to support repudiation or not been taken out of the equation. Judges then would be free to focus on the letter of the law. Stewart’s inclination to distrust an elected judiciary is shared by writer Clifford Thies in “Repudiation in Antebellum Mississippi.” Thies also says that in the end Mississippi was the only state in the Union that repudiated its debts, though others may have had similar or worse debt resulting from the nationwide economic depression.

During the summer of 1845, John P. Stewart spent about a month in Tennessee and Kentucky and was present at the Whig convention in Nashville. He comments, “I could hear of nothing but politics and political meetings wherever I went.” He considered himself, “a pretty strong Whig,” but was glad to leave the excitement. He comments on the inability of the Whigs to get the “Locos” to engage in debate, “The gauntlet was thrown down constantly by the Whigs but never taken up.” In Mississippi and Louisiana the Whigs were charging the Democrats with illegal voting, “There were about 5 to 6000 votes more poled in this state in 1844 than 1843 when there was a larger vote poled than ever was before — the increase was greater than either the natural increase or the increase by immigration.”

President James K. Polk, Democrat, took office in March of 1845. John P. Stewart writes of Polk’s nomination, “Davy Crockett first gave him notoriety when chairman of the committee of the Ways and Means by comparing the committee to a gimlet handle big in the middle and little at both ends.” Stewart goes on to say that Polk’s nomination was probably the best of the Democratic candidates and expresses amazement that the North, even some abolitionists, supported the Texas platform. As the depression waned in Mississippi towards the latter part of the decade, the annexation of Texas as a United States territory was a political issue that would serve to awaken the controversy over slavery in the territories. Generally, Whigs were opposed to the annexation of Texas because of the slavery question, but southern Whigs may have opposed it for other reasons. Duncan McKenzie and his Louisiana cousin Duncan Calhoun expressed opposition because they feared that distant states would be difficult to govern, that federal authority would be stretched too far. Some of them likely followed Clay’s argument that Texas should be acquired without war. Nevertheless, after Polk was elected and war inevitable, Mississippians, Whig or Democrat, tended to support the war. The number of recruits willing to fight far exceeded the quota allowed Mississippi by the federal government. Known as “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay was opposed to the Mexican War from the beginning and suspicious of the grounds for it. His own son lost his life in the war.

McKenzie, in 1846, writes his opposition to the annexation of Texas: “… in the first place the annexation of Texas to this Union was positively inconsistent with the laws of honor, and secondly our claim on oregon to the 49th line of No Latitude is presumption unparalleled in the history of free government.” He continues to express the cowardly compromise with the British over the Oregon territory and the bullying war instigated with a weak country like Mexico:

The glorious compromise on the Oregon

dispute is in reality the cause of much thanksgiving … but

I ask in the name of common sense where is the cause of such puffing is it in our cringing

before British power … when we saw the old

lyon raise his mane we next expected to hear him roar which would paralyze our nerve

to avoid which we made the inglorious compromise …

Mexico is only responded to by the roar of our cannon, such is the glory of our age to bow to the strong and crush the weak – Duncan McKenzie

In 1848 John P. Stewart writes of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending the Mexican War. He says it, “has been ratified by the Mexican Congress and that cotton has advanced a cent per pound in consequence thereof.”

War or no war, no matter what the political news of the first half of the nineteenth century, it traveled at much less than twenty-first century speeds. In 1845 Stewart had mentioned a change in the postal rates. Prior to 1845, letter rates had been high, but newspapers could be sent through the mail at little cost. Conceivably, if you could get away with sending your letter tucked in a periodical, the postage cost was very little. Evidently, by 1848 the mail service had not improved in Mississippi and the classification of postal rates for periodicals had not hastened their journey. Stewart writes in a conversation about receiving their copies of the Whig Washington D.C. based newspaper, The National Intelligencer:

You complain in your

last of the time you receive your National Intelligencer — Why my

dear Sir you have no right to complain — I have taken the Triweekly

Intelligencer for the last twelve years or more and I have not received

more than a dozen numbering all that time in a less time than

two weeks and very frequently three weeks or a month after they

are printed We have only weekly mail and it is frequently the case

that I do not receive an Intelligencer by a mail and again sometimes

a dozen – John P. Stewart

Increasingly, during the 1830s, provocative abolitionist literature mailed to southerners was being censored in states such as South Carolina, though the federal government outlawed censorship. The original purpose of the Post Office was to promote democracy through dissemination of political information in newspapers and periodicals. Thus, from the beginning, those items enjoyed lower rates. The higher rates for letters, averaging around twenty-five cents per letter, subsidized the postal service. This all changed with the passage of the Postal Act of 1845. Letter rates were lowered and periodicals were classified and rated accordingly. The purpose of the postal service was becoming oriented toward general correspondence.

Stewart continues to describe the new telegraph lines that he believes will be “very little advantage to us although there will be four stations in less than fifty miles from us — the nearest one will be twenty five miles.” He mentions that the newspapers are full of the controversies among rival telegraph companies: “The O’Reily lines and the Morse or Kendall & Smith line — both of which will pass through Jackson our Capital Natchez and Vicksburg … both parties claim to be the real Simon pure and to have the best batteries.” Such was the status of the arms of national political news near the end of the decade of the 1840s.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of the mail, by 1848 Mississippi Whigs are still organized, though John P. Stewart indicates even his own inclination to give some support to John C. Calhoun. Perhaps this change in the political winds is a result of the rising temperature of the debate over slavery, a national storm which would continue to escalate into the next decade. With Mississippi’s cotton economy beginning to make the recovery that would continue up until the Civil War, the state would lean more decidedly Democrat and pro-slavery. Nationally, Whigs supporters would generally support the Republican Party.

In 1848 John P. Stewart takes measure of his Mississippi Whig party, writing that, “The whigs of this state are at present divided in opinion although a majority are in favour of Gen Taylor … Old Harry of the West still has his friends but he has been beaten so often that a majority of the Whigs … are disposed to rub him off the track.” The next line Stewart writes may be indicative of the waning Whig party in the state, “So far as I am concerned I would be perfectly willing to run old Cal again did I believe there would be a prospect of his success.” It is Calhoun’s pro-slavery, state’s rights stance that was becoming increasingly a part of the antebellum Democratic party. In 1848 Stewart is of the opinion that “there are at least twenty Whigs in the United States,” who would be preferable to Mr. Henry Clay, perhaps indicating a move away from Clay’s centrist positions. Nationally, the Whig party would elect Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore to the presidency of the United States before it was done.

During 1848 John P. Stewart traveled to know the country and gauge politics. Anticipating the national election, Stewart made the trip to Ohio and Kentucky to partake in the political activities. He was in Louisville, KY at the time of the election of the Democrat Governor John J. Crittenden. According to Stewart, Crittenden favored the nomination of Zachary Taylor over Kentucky native Henry Clay on the Whig ticket. Nevertheless, Crittenden won the governorship as a Whig and would use his bully pulpit as governor and as a congressman to denounce talk of secession. Indicative of the political divide in Kentucky, one of his sons would eventually serve the Union and another the Confederacy during the Civil War.

On this same 1848 trip Stewart traveled to Ohio, there he apparently encountered an array of political forces including, “Taylor whigs, (Lewis) Cass Democrats, Van Buren free soil democrats. free soil whigs, Abolitionists National reformers or the doctrine of any man voting himself a farm &c.” The Free Soil party formed after the Mexican War and the failure of the Wilmot Proviso over the issue of slavery in the territories acquired in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Free Soilers supported what they saw as the more ethical and economically more feasible system of free rather than slave labor in the West. Evidently, Stewart listens to an “itinerant free soil lecturer.” According to Stewart, the speaker “abused” Zachary Taylor, the Whig nominee for President; Lewis Cass, a Democratic contender; and “John C. Calhoun came in for a large share of his abuse.” The speaker also disparaged “honest John Davis of Massachusetts,” accusing him of being pro-slavery and defeating the Wilmot Proviso. This speaker also accused northern Whigs of, “having formed a coalition with the Southern dealers in human flesh.” Perhaps this Free Soiler was emphasizing the shared economic interests of pro-slavery, cotton-producing southerners and manufacturers and shippers in the north. Stewart continues by describing this Free Soiler’s opinion of the balance of power in Congress:

He charged that a Southern Slave holder owning

five hundred Slaves exercised as much influence in the government

of National affairs as three hundred and one white men. – John P. Stewart

This may have been an exaggeration of numbers on the Free Soiler’s part, but his argument had some basis. Before the Civil War, the “three-fifths compromise” in the U. S. Constitution allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person in figuring representation in the House of Representatives. This had for decades given the South an edge in Congressional power. Stewart continues by attempting an argument against this point. Stewart says that the Free Soiler forgot to mention that “free Negroes” in the Northern States are counted in figuring representation even though they have, “no more political rights in his own and all the Western free states than our slaves.” Perhaps John P. Stewart was unaware of the small number of free Blacks in the North compared to the overwhelming number of slaves in the South.

General Taylor, in spite of the Free Soilers and other factions, would probably receive Ohio’s vote, according to Stewart. The free states are, “almost unanimously opposed to the extension of slavery in the territories.” After Stewart’s return to Franklin County, Mississippi, he expected that General Zachary Taylor would in all likelihood get the Franklin County vote. Franklin County borders Adams County and would probably have had a Whig majority of voters, since it is in the Natchez area. Indeed, Whig Zachary Taylor was elected and took office on March 4, 1849. Whiggery would by the mid-1850s be absorbed into the Republican Party that elected former Whig Abraham Lincoln.

In the last surviving letter John P. Stewart writes to Duncan McLaurin in 1848, he reveals his own opinion on the slavery issue. His particular stance on slavery as a necessary evil allowed him to remain supportive of the Whigs. Unfortunately, Stewart died in May of 1858. Any correspondence he might have written to Duncan McLaurin after 1848 has not survived in this collection. It is likely that he would have been a Unionist as many more prominent Whigs were in 1860. His opinion, however, does not seem to stray far from what was probably the opinion of many southern Unionists, Republicans, and even many abolitionists in the United States in 1860.

In 1848, according to Stewart, political opinions in his state ran the gamut. Apparently attitudes did not seem as polarized as they would become a decade later. Stewart contends, “We have men here of almost of every class of politics — We have ultra pro slavery men Some few opposed entirely to slavery some acknowledging it an irremediable evil &c … Henry Clay was denounced as an abolitionist and so was every man that would acknowledge Slavery an evil.” He goes on to describe the opinions of one political speaker: “every man was an abolitionist that would not agree with him that Slavery was instituted by our Creator for the benefit of the African that by Slavery the African was civilized and Christianized That the African race is inferior to the white in intellect.” Stewart cannot fathom this position and continues to explain his own attitude towards slavery as an evil but a necessary one. He acknowledges that slave labor is not profitable in the newest states, but says this is a small portion of the nation. Stewart also believes that if a master takes his slave into free state, he must abide by the laws of that state that would consider him free. He says, “It is true the Constitution of the United States and the laws passed under it tolerate the institution (of slavery) but never have established it.” Stewart believes that the issue should be decided according to “local laws.” His opinion is further explained in the following excerpt from his 1848 correspondence:

For myself I consider slavery an evil but would consider it

a greater evil to free them and leave them amongst us — They would not then have

more political privileges than they now have as slaves and would have no protection

It is true some few would rise above this but such would be the case with the greater

portion of them — The races cannot exist together as equal one must be subservient

to the other and of course I am in favor of mine maintaining this ascendancy.

I have no conscientious scruples against  holding them in bondage and my only

reason of favoring the sending them out of the country would be the benefit of the

whites. – John P. Stewart

Two issues manifest themselves here: one is slavery and the other is racism. Stewart is arguing that slavery is evil but necessary. Though he may believe that the dark-skinned African people are capable human beings deserving of freedom, he does not believe in the amalgamation of the races. Apparently, he has bought into the 19th century common fear of “the other.” He sees the black man as a threat to white ascendancy, believing that one “must be subservient” to the other. The American Colonization Society was founded upon this fear of the amalgamation of the races. A large portion of the nation’s white people would continue a century and more beyond to “love people from a distance” as long as they were not a threat to racial purity or political power.

Evidence exists that other Whigs in Mississippi held similar views, though McKenzie and Stewart differed in socio-economic status from the stereotype of the “Wealthy Whig.” Stephen Duncan, a prominent Natchez Planter of the Whig Party was the founder of the Mississippi Colonization Society. Duncan became one of the wealthiest planters in the state after migrating from his birthplace of Pennsylvania to Mississippi in 1800. He eventually left his medical practice for the more lucrative prospects of cotton planter with interests in northeastern shipping and railroads. In addition, he was a president of the Bank of the State of Mississippi and founder of an Agricultural Bank. According to Martha Jane Brazy writing in The Mississippi Encyclopedia, “By the eve of the Civil War, Duncan enslaved more than twenty-two hundred men, women, and children on more than fifteen cotton and sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.” He supported the colonization of African-Americans in Liberia because he believed in gradual emancipation. This, he reasoned would allay the fear of many southern whites about the growing slave population and also limit crop overproduction. No documentation exists that he ever freed any of the enslaved people he owned. He was a Unionist against secession, blaming the South for starting the war. In 1863 he left Mississippi for New York and never returned. William K. Scarborough writes in The Mississippi Encyclopedia that Stephen Duncan billed the Confederate government for $185,000 dollars in losses.

From the correspondence of Duncan McKenzie and John P. Stewart, we recognize thoughtful and informed voters of the nineteenth century. Perhaps McKenzie’s words expressed a bit more passion in contrast to Stewart’s more reasoned tone. However, their words illustrate the conclusion of author Daniel Walker Howe: “What people felt is an important part of what happened to them, and unless we understand how they felt, we will not understand what happened.”


Brazy, Martha Jane. “Duncan, Stephen.” The Mississippi Encyclopedia. ed. Ownby, Ted and Charles Reagan Wilson. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 368-369.

“The Coon Are Dead.” The Weekly Mississippian. Jackson. 16 October 1840. 1. Accessed at newspapers.com. 1 November 2018.

“Democratic Motto.” Southern Reformer. Jackson, MS. 29 November 1845. 3. Accessed at newspapers.com. 1 November 2018.

“Franklin County Returns.” Natchez Daily Courier. 12 November 1853. 2. newspapers.com.

Henkin, David M. “An Excerpt from The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America.” University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 2006. 15-14. Accessed on 1 November 2018 at https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/327205.html

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1979. 3-5, 7, 10.

“John C. Calhoun 1843.” The Guard. Holly Springs, MS. 30 August 1843. 3. Accessed at newspapers.com. 1 November 2018.

Letters from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 4 July 1840, 24 September 1840, 15 June 1841, 8 September 1841, 26 October 1841, 24 July 1842, 29 August 1842, 6 August 1843, 23 September 1843, 10 February 1844, 20 August 1844, 5 July 1845, 16 June 1846, 24 August 1846. Boxes 1&2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letters from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 30 July 1840, 22 July 1841, 10 December 1841, 24 March 1842, 31 August 1842, 9 August 1843, 11 July 1845, 8 June 1848, 14 September 1848, 30 November 1848. Boxes 1&2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Olsen, Christopher J. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2000. 34.

“Resolved.” The Natchez Daily Courier. 7 July 1840. 3. accessed 22 March 2017. newspapers.com.

Scarborough, William K. “Natchez Nabobs.” The Mississippi Encyclopedia. ed. Ownby, Ted and Charles Reagan Wilson. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 912-913.

“Senator Thomas Hart Benton.” Necessary Facts. https://necessaryfacts.blogspot.com/2018/03/senator-thomas-hart-benton.html. 11 March 2018. Accessed 3 November 2018.

Thies, Clifford. “Repudiation in Antebellum Mississippi.” The Independent Review, v. 19, n. 2, Fall 2014, ISSN 1086-1653. 2014. 191-208.

“Why They Repudiate.” The Natchez Weekly Courier. 23 August 1843. 4. accessed 24 June 2017. newspapers.com.

“Word Origin and History for Coon.” dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. 2010. Accessed at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/coon. 3 November 2018.

Duncan McKenzie Letters of the 1830s: The Mail

This letter was addressed in July of 1831 and sent from the Jaynesville, MS post office to the address in North Carolina with the appropriate 25 cent postage whether prepaid or paid upon destination. The paper has been folded and sealed to create an envelope-like space for the address.

The following is the first of a group of posts highlighting the content of Duncan McKenzie’s correspondence from Covington County, Mississippi with his brother-in-law, Duncan McLaurin, in North Carolina during the decade of the 1830’s. Each post will examine a different topic addressed within the letters.

During the decade of the 1830s it cost twenty-five cents to mail a letter of one sheet a distance of more than four hundred miles – a high price for most farming families, especially those living great distances from relatives left behind in the east. For example, a U. S. laborer in the early 1830s might have made an average of seventy-five cents to one dollar a day. According to The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America by David M. Henkin, in the 1830s the bulk of the mail included subscription newspapers, which enjoyed lower rates of delivery. One has only to peruse the long lists of names posted by the Post Office that appeared in the newspapers of this decade to appreciate the difficulties of retrieving one’s mail. If it arrived at the post office in a timely manner, it was likely to take weeks for the busy rural farmer to have time to negotiate the distance to the post office. In addition, this farmer would likely have to pay the postage in order to put hands on his letter. In 1830 the requirement of prepaid postage, reduction in postage, and the use of government issued stamps was still more than a decade coming.

The mail, despite the increased upkeep of the roads, traveled slowly at best by today’s standards, a month or more in passage was not uncommon. Most mail traveled by horseback or stage on roads, the passage upon which was uncertain due to weather conditions. Also, mail was sent via boats on the rivers, also subject to the danger of snags and varying river stages. Many people avoided using the postal system and still sent letters and packages by way of traveling friends and acquaintances, when available.

Every part of Duncan McKenzie’s letter is filled with writing, even the margins. So little space is left on this page that Duncan McLaurin was forced to write his date of receipt notations on the address portion of the page. The postage is marked free on this letter because Duncan McLaurin was serving as postmaster at Laurel Hill and had evidently invoked franking privileges.

In perusing the Duncan McLaurin Papers, it is clear that one sheet created four writing surfaces, and often writing was continued up through the margins of the paper. After all, with mail delivery as expensive as 25 cents a sheet, one could not afford to waste any space. The paper was folded to form an envelope of sorts, which was sealed with wax and upon which the address was written directing the letter to a particular post office. If the letter had been sent by mail the number 25, for 25 cents postage, would appear in the corner, where today a stamp would appear. Mapping postal routes did not begin until around 1837, so especially rural letters, would not bear a street address. Mail was not delivered directly to the home, but had to be retrieved from the nearest post office, which might be someone’s home or a local business. Some of Duncan McKenzie’s letters to his brother-in-laws, Duncan and John McLaurin, bear the 25 cents postage, others do not. Those letters that do not bear the 25, have likely been carried by friends or family members traveling from Covington County, MS to Laurel Hill, NC and directly put into the hands of the person. Sometimes the name of the person charged with delivery is written on the front of the letter.

In 1837 Duncan McKenzie receives a gun he has asked John McLaurin to purchase for him from a reputable gunsmith in Richmond County, such as Mr. Buchanan. The gun is for his older boys, who love hunting and tracking animals in the pine woods of Mississippi. However, it takes nearly a year for the gun to be sent by way of a traveling friend, relative – or someone trustworthy. It took another length of time for Duncan McKenzie to retrieve the gun in Mississippi, because it was delivered to the home of an acquaintance miles away.

In his March 21, 1837 letter, Duncan McKenzie reports to Duncan McLaurin, “I also heard that the gun came — I forward this to you per Mr. John Gilchrist who is on his way to No-ca … he promises to call at your village.” Evidently, this particular letter will not need the 25 cent postage. In this same letter, McKenzie wishes to let his father-in-law know where to direct a letter to a relative in Mississippi, “…to Aunt Catharine Dale Ville po – Ladderdale (Lauderdale) Co. Mi.” In his next letter, a month later, Duncan McKenzie has still not retrieved the gun, “we have not brought the gun down from Mr. McCollum yet tho only 7 miles.” Seven miles does not seem so far, but to a busy farmer and over uncertain roads, life was just not that convenient.

In the letter of April 1837 McKenzie remarks that his letter will be mailed at Mount Carmel since he will be going to vote in an election for a member of the state legislature. It was probably common practice among those who attempted to write regularly to have their mailings coincide with trips to a nearby post office. Indeed the post mark reads Mt. Carmel with the number 25 in the stamp’s corner.

In the western states such as MS, news from families in the east was of such importance that  letters were commonly shared and sometimes purposely passed around the community. McKenzie mentions to his brother-in-law that he had read a letter in which he discovered that a valued mutual friend in Carrolton, MS was in bad health with chills and fever. In 1839 Duncan McKenzie writes that, “Having written so lately to John I do not know what to add more without repetition.” Obviously, Duncan and John McLaurin shared news of their sister’s family with every letter.

The circle at the top of the address portion of this letter is evidence of the wax seal placed on the page after it is folded.

In spite of the precarious nature of the mail delivery during the first half of the 19th century, it was probably more successful than it was not. An example of the concerns that correspondents from west to east harbored each time they used the post are evident in the following comment by Duncan McKenzie of Mississippi to his brother-in-law in North Carolina. In an earlier letter he had mentioned that McLaurin’s sister, Barbara, had not been feeling well. Further information on the matter seems to have been lost in the mail, causing some anxiety. It turned out that Barbara’s complaint was a pregnancy and by the time the issue was sorted out, the baby was very near birth. The following is from McKenzie’s November 1838 letter:

“…my letter of the latter part of Augt.

had not reached,, you before the date of 7th Octr

If it miscarried I beleave it was the first lost

between us in near Six years regular correspondence

The receipt of that letter in due time, I know

would have been to you a Source of some joy, at least

it would dispel the uneasiness that the marginal notice in my letter of the early part of June gave

of Barbras situation — But if need be the treach

-erous or negligent hands who were the cause of the

delay or final miscarryriage of a letter which was

to me a Source of inexpressible pleasure to have

Through the mercy of our kind heavenly Benefac

-tor to communicate to you its contents, who I know

would have received its contents with joy and Thanks

-giving to the dispenser of all mercies to his creation,

I hope my letter to John of October has not been inter

-cepted, for fear that it did not reach you I will give Some

of the contents of both in this and mail it at Williams

Burgh our county Sight”

In this letter McKenzie also mentions the birth of his daughter Mary Catharine and the territorial conflict between local postmasters that he thinks may have been a contributing factor in the miscarried mail. He tells Duncan to continue use the Jaynesville post office as usual if the letters, in reality, have not been lost. If they have, he should send his mail to nearby Mt. Carmel.

An interesting note by Duncan McLaurin appears on a letter written to him by his nephew Kenneth McKenzie dated December of 1848. “This letter was written on the 11th and mailed on the 13th December 1848 came to hand from Springfield P. O. Richmond County No. Ca. on the 14th May 1861.” Evidently, this letter was thirteen years on the way.


Garavaglia, Louis A. To the Wide Missouri: Traveling in America During the First Decades of Westward Expansion. Westholme: Yardley, PA. 2011. 59

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. 2007

http://libraryguides.missouri.edu/pricesandwages/1830-1839 . accessed 3 January 2018.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 21 March 1837. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 7 November 1838. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 14 August 1839. Boxes 1 & 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.