John Marshall Hamilton, Governor 1883-5, was born May 28, 1847, in a log house upon a farm about two miles from Richwood, Union County, Ohio. His father was Samuel Hamilton, the eldest son of Rev. Wm. Hamilton, who, together with his brother, the Rev. Samuel Hamilton, was among the early pioneer Methodist preachers in Ohio. The mother of the subject of this sketch was, before her marriage, Mrs. Nancy McMorris, who was born and raised in Fauquier or Loudoun County, Va., and related to the two large families of Youngs and Marshalls, well known in that commonwealth; and from the latter family name was derived the middle name of Gov. Hamilton.
In March, 1854, Mr. Hamilton’s father sold out his little pioneer forest home in Union County, O., and, loading his few household effects and family (of six children) into two emigrant covered wagons, moved to Roberts Township, Marshall Co., Ill., being 21 days on the route. Swamps, unbridged streams and innumerable hardships and privations met them on their way. Their new home had been previously selected by the father. Here, after many long years of toil, they succeeded in paying for the land and making a comfortable home. John was, of course, brought up to hard manual labor, with no schooling except three or four months in the year at a common country school. However, he evinced a capacity and taste for a high order of self-education, by studying or reading what books he could borrow, as the family had but very few in the house. Much of his study he prosecuted by the light of a log fire in the old-fashioned chimney place. The financial panic of 1857 caused the family to come near losing their home, to pay debts; but the father and two sons, William and John, “buckled to” and persevered in hard labor and economy until they redeemed their place from the mortgage.
When the tremendous excitement of the political campaign of 1860 reached the neighborhood of Roberts Township, young Hamilton, who had been brought up in the doctrine of anti-slavery, took a zealous part in favor of Lincoln’s election. Making special efforts to procure a little money to buy a uniform, he joined a company of Lincoln Wide-Awakes at Magnolia, a village not far away. Directly after the ensuing election it became evident that trouble would ensue from the South, and this Wide-Awake company, like many others throughout the country, kept up its organization and transformed itself into a military company. During the ensuing summer they met often for drill and became proficient; but when they offered themselves for the war, young Hamilton was rejected on account of his youth, he being then but 14 years of age. During the winter of 1863-4 he attended an academy at Henry, Marshall County, and in the following May he again enlisted, for the fourth time, when he was placed in the 141st Ill. Vol. Inf., a regiment then being raised at Elgin, Ill., for the 100-day service. He took with him 13 other lads from his neighborhood, for enlistment in the service. This regiment operated in Southwestern Kentucky, for about five months, under Gen. Paine.
The following winter, 1864-5, Mr. Hamilton taught school, and during the two college years 1865-7, he went through three years of the curriculum of the Ohio Wesleyan University at Delaware, Ohio. The third year he graduated, the fourth in a class of 46, in the classical department. In due time he received the degree of M.A. For a few months he was the Principal of Marshall “College” at Henry, an academy under the auspices of the M. E. Church. By this time he had commenced the study of law, and after earning some money as a temporary Professor of Latin at the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington, he entered the law office of Weldon, Tipton & Benjamin, of that city. Each member of this firm has seen been distinguished as a Judge. Admitted to the Bar in May, 1870, Mr. Hamilton was given an interest in the same firm, Tipton having been elected Judge. In October following he formed a partnership with J. H. Rowell, at that time Prosecuting Attorney. Their business was then small, but they increased it to very large proportions, practicing in all grades of courts, including even the U. S. Supreme Court, and this partnership continued unbroken until Feb. 6, 1883, when Mr. Hamilton was sworn in as Executive of Illinois. On the 4th of March following Mr. Rowell took his seat in Congress.
In July, 1871, Mr. Hamilton married Miss Helen M. Williams, the daughter of Prof. Wm. G. Williams, Professor of greek in the Ohio Wesleyan University. Mr. and Mrs. H. have two daughters and one son.
In 1876 Mr. Hamilton was nominated by the Republicans for the State Senate, over other and older competitors. He took an active part “on the stump” in the campaign, for the success of his party, and was elected by a majority of 1,640 over his Democratic Greenback opponent. In the Senate he served on the Committees on Judiciary, Revenue, State Institutions, Appropriations, Education, and on Miscellany; and during the contest for the election of a U. S. Senator, the Republicans endeavoring to reelect John A. Logan, he voted for the war chief on every ballot, even along when all the other Republicans had gone over to the Hon. E. B. Lawrence and the Democrats and Independents elected Judge David Davis. At this session, also, was passed the first Board of health and Medical Practice act, of which Mr. Hamilton was a champion, against so much opposition that the bill was several times “laid on the table.” Also, this session authorized the location and establishment of a southern penitentiary, which was fixed at Chester. In the session of 1879 Mr. Hamilton was elected President pro tem. of the Senate, and was a zealous support of John A. Logan for the U. S. Senate, who was this time elected without any trouble.
In May, 1880, Mr. Hamilton was nominated on the Republican ticket for Lieutenant Governor, his principal competitors before the Convention being Hon. Wm. A. James, ex-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Judge Robert Bell, of Wabash County, Hon. T. T. Fountain, of Perry County, and Hon. M. M. Saddler, of Marion County. He engaged actively in the campaign, and his ticket was elected by a majority of 41,200. As Lieutenant Governor, he presided almost continuously over the Senate in the 32d General Assembly and during the early days of the 33d, until he succeeded to the Governorship. When the Legislature of 1883 elected Gov. Cullom to the United States Senate, Lieut. Gov. Hamilton succeeded him, under the Constitution, taking the oath of office Feb. 6, 1883. He bravely met all the annoyances and embarrassments incidental upon taking up another’s administration. The principal events with which Gov. Hamilton was connected as the Chief Executive of the State were, the mine disaster at Braidwood, the riots in St. Clair and Madison Counties in May, 1883, the appropriations for the State militia, the adoption of the Harper high-license liquor law, the veto of a dangerous railroad bill, etc.
The Governor was a Delegate at large to the National Republican Convention at Chicago in June, 1884, where his first choice for President was John A. Logan, and second choice Chester A. Arthur; but he afterward zealously worked for the election of Mr. Blaine, true to his party.
Mr. Hamilton’s term as Governor expired Jan. 30, 1885, when the great favorite “Dick” Oglesby was inaugurated.