By Dr. Walter G. Howell
Clinton’s most cherished and enduring tradition is that of how Clinton lost becoming the state capital by one vote. It’s in the curriculum of the Clinton Public Schools, and the story was featured on Walt Grayson’s “Mississippi Scenes.” The one-vote loss is a tradition.
A tradition is the transmission of a custom or belief from generation to generation, something believed but never proven. There generally is some basis for a tradition, and that is why it is believed. Clinton’s one-vote loss of the state capital has been told for many generations. It can’t be proven. In fact, it can be disproved.
Strangely, in all the years of the one-vote tradition, only one person, Charles Hillman Brough, seems to have bothered to research the journals of the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives, the ofﬁcial records, to determine how the voting went on the question of relocating the state capital to Clinton. Reading ofﬁcial journals is tedious, but must be done if an accurate history is to be written.
For the record, there was only one vote ever taken on a bill to make Clinton the state capital. That was on February 14, 1828, and the vote was seventeen “nays” and thirteen “ayes.”
Questions can be raised as to why the legislature wanted to relocate the capital, why was Clinton considered a possible site, and who started the one-vote tradition?
The village of Washington was the capital when Mississippi became a state in 1817. Once the interior counties outnumbered the river counties, the legislature moved the capital – ﬁrst to Natchez, then to Columbia in 1822. The legislature wanted the capital near the geographical center of the state and near a navigable stream.
After the Treaty of Doaks Stand opened middle Mississippi to settlement, the LeFleur’s Bluff site on the Pearl River was chosen, and the capital was moved to the new town of Jackson in 1823. A small brick two-story building on the corner of President and Capital streets served as the state house for the legislature. The governor and other state ofﬁcials had to secure their own housing.
Jackson had a print shop, the federal land ofﬁce, a few houses and stores, and a saloon next door to the state house in 1823. Legislators were never happy with Jackson as the capital. Yellow fever was a constant threat, and people believed the swampy Pearl River was the source of the disease. When legislative sessions ended, everyone went home, leaving Jackson as a virtual ghost town.
Governor Walter Leake moved to Jackson with the legislature in November 1823. He bought land ten miles west of Jackson, built his home, “Mount Salus,” and asked the federal government to establish a post ofﬁce near his home. The governor’s personal letter box served as his post ofﬁce until the “Mount Salus” post ofﬁce opened in 1825 at the new Spring Hotel. In 1828, the post ofﬁce was renamed “Clinton.”
Efforts to move the capital from Jackson began during the 1828 legislative session. The state senate passed a bill 7 to 4 to relocate the capital without designating a new location. Henry Vick in the Senate and Silas Brown in the House, representing Hinds County, both favored moving the capital to Clinton.
When the Senate bill reached the House, the speaker assigned the bill to a committee that amended the bill by adding Clinton as the relocation site. When the amended bill reached the House ﬂoor, there was a series of motions to “strike Clinton” and insert “Georgetown,” then “Port Gibson,” “Monticello,” “Liberty,” and ﬁnally “Vicksburg.” Each motion to “strike Clinton” failed on a voice vote.
After two days of debate and numerous votes on other amendments, the House defeated the amended Senate bill, which had attempted to name Clinton as the location for the capital, by a vote of seventeen “nays” to thirteen “ayes.” This was the only roll call vote ever taken on Clinton becoming the state capital.
Editor’s note: This is the ﬁrst in a series of three pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will explore the “one-vote loss” tradition regarding Clinton being named the capital of the state.