Shelby M. Cullom, Governor 1877-83, is the sixth child of the late Richard N. Cullom, and was born Nov. 22, 1829, in Wayne Co., Ky., where his father then resided, and whence both the Illinois and Tennessee branches of the family originated. In the following year the family emigrated to the vicinity of Washington, Tazewell Co., Ill., when that section was very sparsely settled. They located on Deer Creek, in a grove at the time occupied by a party of Indians, attracted there by the superior hunting and fishing afforded in that vicinity. The following winter was known as the “hard winter,” the snow being very deep and lasting and the weather severely cold; and the family had to subsist mainly on boiled corn or hominy, and some wild game, for several weeks. In the course of time Mr. R. N. Cullom became a prominent citizen and was several times elected to the Legislature, both before and after the removal of the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. He died about 1873.
Until about 19 years of age young Cullom grew up to agricultural pursuits, attending school as he had opportunity during the winter. Within this time, however, he spent several months teaching school, and in the following summer he “broke prairie” with an ox team for the neighbors. With the money obtained by these various ventures, he undertook a course of study at the Rock River Seminary, a Methodist institution at Mt. Morris, Ogle county; but the sudden change to the indoor life of a student told severely upon his health, and he was taken home, being considered in a hopeless condition. While at Mt. Morris he heard Hon. E. B. Washburne make his first speech.
On recovering health, Mr. Cullom concluded to study law, under the instruction of Abraham Lincoln, at Springfield, who had by this time attained some notoriety as an able lawyer; but the latter, being absent from his office most of the time, advised Mr. Cullom to enter the office of Stuart & Edwards. After about a year of study there, however, his health failed again, and he was obliged to return once more to outdoor life. Accordingly he bought hogs for packing, for A. G. Tyng, in Peoria, and while he regained his health he gained in purse, netting $400 in a few weeks. Having been admitted to the Bar, he went to Springfield, where he was soon elected City Attorney, on the Anti-Nebraska ticket.
In 1856 he ran on the Fillmore ticket as a Presidential Elector, and, although failing to be elected as such, he was at the same time elected a Representative in the Legislature from Sangamon County, by a local coalition of the American and Republican parties. On the organization of the House, he received the vote of the Fillmore men for Speaker. Practicing law until 1860, he was again elected to the Legislature, as a Republican, while the county went Democratic on the Presidential ticket. In January following he was elected Speaker, probably the youngest man who had ever presided over an Illinois Legislature. After the session of 1861, he was a candidate for the State Constitutional Convention called for that year, but was defeated, and thus escaped the disgrace of being connected with that abortive party scheme to revolutionize the State Government. In 1862 he was a candidate for the State Senate, but was defeated. The same year, however, he was appointed by President Lincoln on a Government Commission, in company with Gov. Boutwell of Massachusetts and Charles A. Dana, since of the New York Sun, to investigate the affairs of the Quartermaster’s and Commissary Departments at Cairo. He devoted several months to this duty.
In 1864 he entered upon a larger political field, being nominated as the Republican candidate for Congress from the Eighth (Springfield) District, in opposition to the incumbent, John T. Stuart, who had been elected in 1862 by about 1,500 majority over Leonard Swett, then of Bloomington, now of Chicago. The result was the election of Mr. Cullom in November following by a majority of 1,785. In 1866 he was re-elected to Congress, over Dr. E. S. Fowler, by the magnificent majority of 4,103! In 1868 he ws again a candidate, defeating the Hon. B. S. Edwards, another of his old preceptors, by 2,884 votes.
During his first term in Congress he served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Expenditures in the Treasury Department; in his second term, on the Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Territories; and in his third term he succeeded Mr. Ashley, of Ohio, to the Chairmanship of the latter. He introduced a bill in the House, to aid in the execution of law in Utah, which caused more consternation among the Mormons than any measure had previously, but which, though it passed the House, failed to pass the Senate.
The Republican Convention which met May 25, 1876, nominated Mr. Cullom for Governor, while the other contestant was Gov. Beveridge. For Lieutenant-Governor they nominated Andrew Shuman, editor of the Chicago Journal. For the same offices the Democrats, combining with the Anti-Monopolists, placed in nomination Lewis Steward, a wealthy farmer and manufacturer, and A. A. Glen. The result of the election was rather close, Mr. Cullom obtaining only 6,800 majority. He was inaugurated Jan. 8, 1877.
Great depression prevailed in financial circles at this time, as a consequence of the heavy failures of 1873 and afterward, the effect of which had seemed to gather force from that time to the end of Gov. Cullom’s first administration. This unspeculative period was not calculated to call forth any new issues, but the Governor’s energies were at one time put to task to quell a spirit of insubordination that had been begun in Pittsburg, Pa., among the laboring classes, and transferred to Illinois at Chicago, East St. Louis and Braidwood, at which places laboring men for a short time refused to work or allow others to work. These disturbances were soon quelled and the wheels of industry again set in motion.,
In May, 1880, Gov. Cullom was re-nominated by the Republicans, against Lyman Trumbull, by the Democrats; and although the former party was somewhat handicapped in the campaign by a zealous faction opposed to Grant for President and to Grant men for office generally, Mr. Cullom was re-elected by about 314,565, to 277,532 for the Democratic State ticket. The Greenback vote at the same time was about 27,000. Both Houses of the Legislature again became Republican, and no representative of the Greenback or Socialist parties were elected. Gov. Cullom was inaugurated Jan. 10, 1881. In his message he announced that the last dollar of the State debt had been provided for.
March 4, 1883, the term of David Davis as United States Senator from Illinois expired, and Gov. Cullom was chosen to succeed him. This promoted Lieutenant-Governor John M. Hamilton to the Governorship. Senator Cullom’s term in the United States Senate will expire March 4, 1889.
As a practitioner of law Mr. C. has been a member of the firm of Cullom, Scholes & Mather, at Springfield; and he has also been President of the State National Bank.
He has been married twice,—the first time Dec. 12, 1855, to Miss Hannah Fisher, by whom he had two daughters; and the second time May 5, 1863, to Julia Fisher. Mrs. C. is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with which religious body Mr. C. is also in sympathy.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.