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James Z. George - Mississippi’s Great Commoner

James Z. George

Mississippi’s Great Commoner

By Timothy B. Smith
Paperback : 9781628460629, 252 pages, February 2014
Hardcover : 9781617032318, 256 pages, February 2012

A biography of the Democratic leader once considered the most important man in state politics


“When the Mississippi school boy is asked who is called the ‘Great Commoner’ of public life in his state," wrote Mississippi’s premier historian Dunbar Rowland in 1901, “he will unhesitatingly answer James Z. George.” While George’s prominence, along with his white supremacist views, have decreased through the decades since then, many modern historians still view him as a supremely important Mississippian, with one writing that George (1826–1897) was “Mississippi's most important Democratic leader in the late nineteenth century.”

Certainly, the Mexican War veteran, prominent lawyer and planter, Civil War officer, Reconstruction leader, state Supreme Court chief justice, and Mississippi’s longest-serving United States senator to that time deserves a full biography. And George’s importance was greater than just on the state level as other southerners copied his tactics to secure white supremacy in their own states. That James Z. George has never had a full, academic biography is inexplicable.

James Z. George: Mississippi’s Great Commoner seeks to rectify the lack of attention to George’s life. In doing so, this volume utilizes numerous sources, never or only slightly used, primarily a large collection of George’s letters held by his descendants and never used by historians. Such wonderful sources allow a glimpse not only into the life and times of James Z. George, but perhaps more importantly an exploration of the man himself, his traits, personality, and ideas. The result is a picture of an extremely commonplace individual on the surface, but an exceptionally complicated man underneath. James Z. George: Mississippi’s Great Commoner will bring this important Mississippi leader of the nineteenth century back into the minds of twenty-first-century Mississippians.


"It is to be hoped that now, more than a century after the death of Senator James Z. George, this splendidly written and researched biography will serve to raise our understanding and appreciation of this notable Mississippi statesman. As this volume so cogently points out, Senator George brought an admirable combination of superior intellect, unquestioned integrity, and resolute independence to political leadership during one of the most absorbing periods in our state's and nation's history in the three decades following the Civil War. A highly respected historian, Professor Tim Smith has reopened a chapter from our conflicted past that provides special insight into the volatile politics of that era in which James Z. George was a memorable and commanding figure."

- William F. Winter, former governor of Mississippi

"James Z. George was one of Mississippi’s premier statesmen during a period when political labels like Redeemer, Bourbon, New Departure Democrat, conservative, racist, progressive, and liberal were so fraught with complexities as to be almost meaningless. Through prodigious research into the life of this complicated self-made man—who would disfranchise Blacks but not tolerate racial violence, who opposed federal intervention but supported federal aid to education—historian Timothy B. Smith has written a compelling biography of this lawyer-politician known fondly as ‘Mississippi’s Great Commoner.’"

- David G. Sansing, emeritus professor of history, University of Mississippi

"James Z. George was a pivotal figure in the state's history, and finally we have a biography of him. Tim Smith's James Z. George: Mississippi's Great Commoner is well-researched, well-written, and paints a picture of George as a richly complex, fascinating leader."

- Stephen Cresswell, author of Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877-1902 and Rednecks, Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi after Reconstruction, 1877-1917