One of the most popular Whig politicians in antebellum Tennessee, James C. Jones was born in Wilson County. Reared by an uncle after his father's death, Jones learned farming by working for his guardian. He occasionally attended common schools and briefly studied law, though he never practiced. Following his marriage in 1829, he established himself on his own farm near Lebanon. Jones's first recorded political activity occurred in 1836, when he attended several public meetings in support of Hugh Lawson White's presidential candidacy. In 1839 Jones was elected to the state House of Representatives, where he quickly gained a reputation as a devoted Whig and effective speaker. As a candidate for presidential elector for William Henry Harrison in 1840, Jones became highly regarded as a master of popular campaigning. In the next year, at age thirty-two, Whigs nominated him to challenge incumbent James K. Polk for the governorship. Dubbed “Lean Jimmy” because of his six-foot, two-inch, 125-pound frame, Jones bested Polk in a series of debates across the state in which he used his popular campaigning style in defense of the national Whig policies of a national bank and government sponsorship of economic development. He upset Polk by a three-point margin. Two years later Jones again defeated Polk by championing the presidential candidacy of Henry Clay–whom, ironically, Polk would defeat a year later in his own triumphant presidential race.
Jones's two terms as governor occurred during a period of rabid partisan politics and economic depression. The “Immortal Thirteen” controversy preoccupied most of his first term, though in an 1842 special session the general assembly passed several relief measures including the abolition of imprisonment for debt. In his second term, the legislature's major accomplishments included establishing Nashville as the state's permanent capital and creating state schools for the blind and for the deaf. Declining to run for a third term, Jones remained politically active after his governorship by promoting the construction of railroads and serving as a presidential elector for Zachary Taylor in 1848. In 1850 he moved to Memphis and became president of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company. The next year, a Whig majority in the assembly elected him to the U.S. Senate. As a senator, Jones spoke frequently but otherwise achieved no significant distinction, although he did play an influential role in winning sufficient southern support at the 1852 Whig convention to secure Winfield Scott's presidential nomination. With the demise of the national Whig Party, Jones refused to follow other southern Whigs into the nativist American Party. Instead, he maintained his independence as an “Old Line Whig,” and in 1856 he supported Democrat James Buchanan for the presidency. After the expiration of his term, he spoke in Illinois in 1858 in favor of Senator Stephen Douglas's reelection campaign against Abraham Lincoln. Shortly before his death, Jones publicly endorsed Douglas as his candidate for the presidency in 1860.
Jones was the first Tennessee governor to have been born in the state. His ambition often put him at odds with other state party leaders, but Jones's rapid rise to prominence, his effective campaign style, and his victories over Polk made him an important figure in helping to establish Tennessee's party as one of the strongest Whig organizations in the South.
Ray G. Osborne, “Political Career of James Chamberlain Jones, 1840-1857,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 7 (1947): 195-228 and 322-34