John McAuley Palmer, Governor 1869-72, was born on Eagle Creek, Scott Co., Ky., Sept. 13, 1817. During his infancy, his father, who had been a soldier in the war of 1812, removed to Christian Co., Ky., where lands were cheap. Here the future Governor of the great Prairie State spent his childhood and received such meager schooling as the new and sparsely settled county afforded. To this he added materially by diligent reading, for which he evinced an early aptitude. His father, an ardent Jackson man, was also noted for his anti-slavery sentiments, which he thoroughly impressed upon his children. In 1831 he emigrated to Illinois, settling in Madison County. Here the labor of improving a farm was pursued for about two years, when the death of Mr. Palmer’s mother broke up the family. About this time Alton College was opened, on the “manual labor” system, and in the spring of 1834 young Palmer, with his elder brother, Elihu, entered this school and remained 18 months. Next, for over three years, he tried variously coopering, peddling and school-teaching.
During the summer of 1838 he formed the acquaintance of Stephen A. Douglas, then making his first canvass for Congress. Young, eloquent and in political accord with Mr. Palmer, he won his confidence, fired his ambition and fixed his purpose. The following winter, while teaching near Canton, he began to devote his spare time to a desultory reading of law, and in the spring entered a law office at Carlinville, making his home with his elder brother, Elihu. (The latter was a learned clergyman, of considerable originality of thought and doctrine.) On the next meeting of the Supreme Court he was admitted to the Bar, Douglas being one of his examiners. He was not immediately successful in his profession, and would have located elsewhere than Carlinville had he the requisite means. Thus his early poverty was a blessing in disguise, for to it he now attributes the success of his life.
From 1839 on, while he diligently pursued his profession, he participated more or less in local politics. In 1843 he became Probate Judge. In 1847 he was elected to the State Constitutional Convention, where he took a leading part. In 1852 he was elected to the State Senate, and at the special session of February, 1854, true to the anti-slavery sentiments bred in him, he took a firm stand in opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; and when the Nebraska question became a party issue he refused to receive a re-nomination for the Senatorship at the hands of the Democracy, issuing a circular to that effect. A few weeks afterward, however, hesitating to break with his party, he participated in a Congressional Convention which nominated T. L. Harris against Richard Yates, and which unqualifiedly approved the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska act. But later in the campaign he made the plunge, ran for the Senate as an Anti-Nebraska Democrat, and was elected. The following winter he put in nomination for the United States Senate Mr. Trumbull, and was one of the five steadfast men who voted for him until all the Whigs came to their support and elected their man.
In 1856 he was Chairman of the Republican State Convention at Bloomington. He ran for Congress in 1859, but was defeated. In 1860 he was Republican Presidential Elector for the State at large. In 1861 he was appointed one of the five Delegates (all Republicans) sent by Illinois to the peace congress at Washington.
When the civil conflict broke out, he offered his services to his country, and was elected Colonel of the 14th Ill. Vol. Inf., and participated in the engagements at Island No. 10; at Farmington, where he skillfully extricated his command from a dangerous position; at Stone River, where his division for several hours, Dec. 31, 1862, held the advance and stood like a rock, and for his gallantry there he was made Major General; at Chickamauga, where his and Van Cleve’s divisions for two hours maintained their position when they were cut off by overpowering numbers. Under Ge. Sherman, he was assigned to the 14th Army Corps and participated in the Atlanta campaign. At Peach-Tree Creek his prudence did much to avert disaster. In February, 1865, Gen. Palmer was assigned to the military administration of Kentucky, which was a delicate post. That State was about half rebel and half Union, and those of the latter element were daily fretted by the loss of their slaves. He, who had been bred to the rules of common law, trembled at the contemplation of his extraordinary power over the persons and property of his fellow men, with which he was vested in his capacity as military Governor; and he exhibited great caution in the execution of the duties of his post.
Gen. Palmer was nominated for Governor of Illinois by the Republican State Convention which met at Peoria May 6, 1868, and his nomination would probably have been made by acclamation had he not persistently declared that he could not accept a candidature for the office. The result of the ensuing election gave Mr. Palmer a majority of 44,707 over John R. Eden, the Democratic nominee.
On the meeting of the Legislature in January, 1869, the first thing to arrest public attention was that portion of the Governor’s message which took broad State’s rights grounds. This and some minor points, which were more in keeping with the Democratic sentiment, constituted the entering wedge for the criticisms and reproofs he afterward received from the Republican party, and ultimately resulted in his entire alienation from the latter element. The Legislature just referred to was noted for the introduction of numerous bills in the interest of private parties, which were embarrassing to the Governor. Among the public acts passed was that which limited railroad charges for passenger travel to a maximum of three cents per mile; and it was passed over the Governor’s veto. Also, they passed, over his veto, the “tax-grabbing law” to pay railroad subscriptions, the Chicago Lake Front bill, etc. The new State Constitution of 1870, far superior to the old, was a peaceful “revolution” which took place during Gov. Palmer’s term of office. The suffering caused by the great Chicago Fire of October, 1871, was greatly alleviated by the prompt responses of his excellency.
Since the expiration of Gov. Palmer’s term, he has been somewhat prominent in Illinois politics, and has been talked of by many, especially in the Democratic party, as the best man in the State for a United States Senator. His business during life has been that of the law. Few excel him in an accurate appreciation of the depth and scope of its principles. The great number of his able veto messages abundantly testify not only this but also a rare capacity to point them out. He is a logical and cogent reasoner and an interesting, forcible and convincing speaker, though not fluent or ornate. without brilliancy, his dealings are rather with facts and ideas than with appeals to passions and prejudices. He is a patriot and a statesman of very high order. Physically he is above the medium height, of robust frame, ruddy complexion and sanguine-nervous temperament. he has a large cranial development, is vivacious, social in disposition, easy of approach, unostentatious in his habits of life, democratic in his habits and manners and is a true American in his fundamental principles of statesmanship.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.