John Sharp Williams

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John S. Williams
House Minority Leader
In office
March 4, 1903 – March 4, 1909
DeputyJames Tilghman Lloyd
Preceded byJames D. Richardson
Succeeded byChamp Clark
Leader of the House Democratic Caucus
In office
March 4, 1903 – March 4, 1909
Preceded byJames D. Richardson
Succeeded byChamp Clark
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1911 – March 4, 1923
Preceded byHernando Money
Succeeded byHubert D. Stephens
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1893 – March 4, 1909
Preceded byJoseph H. Beeman
Succeeded byJames Collier
Constituency5th district (1893–1903)
8th district (1903–1909)
Personal details
John Sharp Williams

(1854-07-30)July 30, 1854
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedSeptember 27, 1932(1932-09-27) (aged 78)
Yazoo City, Mississippi, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseBetty Webb
EducationUniversity of the South
University of Virginia, Charlottesville (LLB)

John Sharp Williams (July 30, 1854 – September 27, 1932) was a prominent American politician in the Democratic Party from the 1890s through the 1920s, and served as the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 to 1908.

Early life[edit]

Williams was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but raised in Yazoo County, Mississippi, after he was orphaned during the American Civil War. After graduating from the Kentucky Military Institute in 1870, he studied at the University of the South before transferring to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, where he was Phi Beta Kappa but did not complete all his science courses for his bachelor's degree.[2] He spent two years in Europe at the University of Heidelberg and what is now the University of Burgundy before returning to the University of Virginia to receive his law degree in 1876.[2] After a brief return to Memphis (where he married Elizabeth Dial Webb in 1877), Williams returned to Yazoo County, where from 1878 to 1893 he ran the family plantation and kept a law practice.

Political career[edit]

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1893, Williams soon became a leader of the Democratic minority, renowned for his speaking skill and wit. Like most other Southern Democrats of the day, he was a proponent of coining silver and an opponent of high tariffs. In 1906, when Great Britain launched HMS Dreadnought, Congressman Williams introduced a bill to change the name of USS Michigan to USS Skeered O' Nothin' as a challenge to the prestigious English.

During his time as ranking Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, Williams was given the privilege of choosing the Democrats assigned to committees by the House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon (by the rules of the House, Cannon was entitled to make all appointments himself), giving him tremendous power within the minority party. In gratitude, Williams was known to omit Democrats whom Cannon found particularly objectionable from committee assignments. Recognizing his status vis-à-vis Cannon, Williams jokingly described his relative political impotence in the Cannon-dominated Committee on Rules, "I am invited to the seances but I am never consulted about the spiritualistic appearances."[3]

By beating one of Mississippi's leading racebaiters, James K. Vardaman, Williams moved to the United States Senate in 1911 after an early election on 21 January 1908. He became one of Woodrow Wilson's strongest supporters, from Wilson's nomination for the Presidency in 1912 to the losing battle to ratify American participation in the League of Nations in 1920. During his time as a senator, he also served as a chairman of the Committee to Establish a University of the United States.

He made a notorious denunciation of the black race when he declared on December 20, 1898: "You could ship-wreck 10,000 illiterate white Americans on a desert island, and in three weeks they would have a fairly good government, conceived and administered upon fairly democratic lines. You could ship-wreck 10,000 negroes, every one of whom was a graduate of Harvard University, and in less than three years, they would have retrograded governmentally; half of the men would have been killed, and the other half would have two wives apiece."[4]

After retiring from the Senate in 1923, Williams returned to his family plantation, where he spent the last decade of his life, dying in late 1932.


  1. ^ The Political Career of John Sharp Williams (1854-1932)
  2. ^ a b Mississippi History Now – The Political Career of John Sharp Williams (1854–1932)
  3. ^ Bolles, Blair. Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon's Experiment with Personal Power, W. W. Norton & Company, 1951, p. 54
  4. ^ Logan, Rayford W. The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, Da Capo Press, 1965, p. 90. ISBN 9780306807589

Further reading[edit]

  • Osborn, George Coleman (1932). Career of John Sharp Williams in the House of Representatives, 1893-1909. University of Indiana.
  • Osborn, George C. (1943). John Sharp Williams: Planter-Statesman of the Deep South. Louisiana State University Press.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1893 – March 3, 1903
Succeeded by
Preceded by
New district
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 8th congressional district

March 4, 1903 – March 3, 1909
Succeeded by
Preceded by House Minority Leader
Succeeded by
Preceded by House Democratic Leader
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Keynote Speaker of the Democratic National Convention
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Mississippi
(Class 1)

1908 (early), 1916
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 1) from Mississippi
March 4, 1911 – March 3, 1923
Served alongside: LeRoy Percy, James K. Vardaman, Pat Harrison
Succeeded by