John Anthony Quitman, United States Army officer, lawyer, and champion of states' rights, was born in Rhinebeck, New York, on September 1, 1798, the fifth child of Rev. Frederick Henry and Anna Elizabeth (Hueck) Quitman. He was educated for the Lutheran ministry by his father and by private tutors and attended Hartwick Academy in Otsego County, New York. In 1818 he became an adjunct professor of English at Mount Airy College, Germantown, Pennsylvania. After finding that he had no vocation to the ministry, Quitman moved west, stopping first at Chillicothe and later at Delaware, Ohio, where he studied law and volunteered for the militia; in 1821 he was elected first lieutenant of the Volunteer Rifle Corps and admitted to the bar. He moved to Mississippi and established a practice in Natchez. On December 24, 1824, he married Eliza Turner. The couple had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood.
Quitman was grand master of the Mississippi Masons from 1826 to 1838 and again from 1840 to 1845. His devotion to Masonic work helped him to establish a firm network of political connections, and in 1827 he was elected to the House of Representatives of the Mississippi legislature. From 1828 to 1834 he was state chancellor and in 1832 was chairman of the judicial committee of the Mississippi constitutional convention. Quitman identified strongly with the nullification cause in 1834, and although his position was probably more extreme than that of most Mississippians of the day, he was elected to the state Senate. He became president of the Senate on December 3, 1835, and, by a quirk in Mississippi law, served as de facto governor until January 7, 1836. He was, however, defeated in his race for United States Congress in 1836 and at about the same time declined an appointment to the high court of errors and appeals.
At the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Quitman determined to go with a "few friends" to the "wild woods of Texas, where at least Honor & honesty may be appreciated." When he sent a Polish dagger to Sam Houston with a note encouraging him in his fight for freedom, Houston responded by urging him to come to Texas with "auxiliary aid." Quitman's "presence" and "force of . . . character and example," Houston wrote, would contribute much to the Texas cause. Quitman joined Thomas J. Green in recruiting volunteers for Texas and on April 5, 1836, without fully informing his wife and leaving his infant daughter ailing, led the "Natchez Fencibles" company on board the steamer Swiss Boy bound for the war. The Mississippian and his seventeen volunteers steamed up the Red River as far as Natchitoches, Louisiana, crossed the Sabine at the Gaines Ferry, and marched to Nacogdoches, where he found only panic resulting from rumors of an impending Mexican and Indian attack (see RUNAWAY SCRAPE). His offer of aid to the citizens was gratefully accepted, and he and his men garrisoned the town with the assurance that "Each of my Natchez boys swears he is good for ten Mexicans; the Texans say they will not be out done. If I must die early, let me die with these brave fellows and for such a cause." Once convinced that the Mexican-Indian threat to Nacogdoches was a sham, Quitman assured his wife that he was only speculating in lands and marched south toward a rendezvous with Sam Houston's army. After marching and countermarching for days across Southeast Texas, Quitman and his men learned that Houston had defeated the Mexican army at San Jacinto. When the Mississippi volunteers found the Texas troops two days after the battle, Houston offered Quitman the position of second in command of his forces, an offer that Quitman declined. He also declined Houston's offer of an appointment as judge advocate in a court-martial of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Rather, Quitman argued, Santa Anna, whom he regarded as "a man of genius, fertile in his resources, and of great energy," should be allowed to return to Mexico, and Houston soon came around to his way of thinking. After spending two weeks in the camp of the Texas army, Quitman returned to Natchez, where he was appointed brigadier general of the Mississippi militia. His campaign to Texas and the aid he had given East Texas refugees had cost him $10,000; his attention to Texas was renewed in 1844, when he made several speeches in favor of annexation of the republic to the United States. After a visit to England in 1839, Quitman practiced law until July 1, 1846, when he was commissioned as a brigadier general of volunteers in the Mexican War. He served with Gen. Zachary Taylor in the northern Mexico campaign of 1846 and with Gen. Winfield Scott in the campaign against Mexico City in 1847. His command was the first to enter the Mexican capital after its surrender, and Quitman was appointed civil and military governor of the city. He was brevetted to major general on September 23, 1846, "for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of Monterrey," and was promoted to major general on April 14, 1847. On March 2, 1847, he received one of only fourteen swords ever awarded by resolution of Congress, "in testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his gallantry and good conduct in storming Monterrey." Others were awarded to David E. Twiggs, John E. Wool, and William Jenkins Worth. Quitman was honorably discharged on July 20, 1848, and returned to Washington, where he urged President James K. Polk to occupy Mexico on a permanent basis.
In Baltimore in 1848 Quitman was a strong candidate for the national Democratic vice presidential nomination, which he did not receive. In 1849, however, he was elected governor of Mississippi and from the beginning of his term favored secession as a means of guaranteeing the continuation of slavery. As an advocate of Cuban liberation from Spain, Quitman entertained revolutionary leader Narciso López in Jackson, but declined his offer of command of the revolutionary army. He was indicted by a federal court, however, for violating United States neutrality laws in favor of the insurrectionists, and resigned as governor. When the charge was dropped, Quitman ran for Congress and was elected on March 4, 1855. He was reelected for a second term but fell ill and died at his plantation, Monmouth, near Natchez on July 17, 1858. Quitman, the county seat of Wood County, Texas, is named for him.