ohn Palmer was born in Scott County, Kentucky, to Ann Tutt Palmer and Louis D.
Palmer, who were farmers. When young Palmer was fourteen, his family moved to
southern Illinois because of his father's opposition to slavery. He attended
local academies in Kentucky, then Illinois, and studied at Alton Seminary (later
Shurtleff College) for two years (1834-1836). Thereafter he peddled clocks in
west central Illinois for two years, then taught school for a year as he studied
law in his spare time. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1839 and became a
prosperous and preeminent lawyer in the state. In 1842 he married Malinda Ann
Neely; they had ten children. When she died in 1885, he married Hannah Lamb
Kimball in 1888.
As a Democrat Palmer was elected as a probate judge in 1843 and 1847, a delegate
to the state constitutional convention in 1847, a county magistrate in 1848, and
a state senator in 1852. He showed his independent streak during his reelection
campaign in 1854 when he ran as an Anti-Nebraska Democrat, rather than
supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of Illinois' U.S. Senator, Stephen Douglas.
Palmer soon joined the new Republican party and maneuvered unsuccessfully to
obtain Abraham Lincoln the vice presidential nomination in 1856. Palmer failed
in his own bid for Congress in 1859, but worked diligently to elect Lincoln
president the next year.
When the Civil War began Palmer enlisted as a colonel and rose to the rank of
major general. He was praised for his leadership, courage, and fighting spirit,
but he antagonized some other officers with what they perceived as his pugnacity
and arrogance. After the war he returned to practicing law in Springfield,
Illinois, and aligned himself with the Radical wing of the Republican party,
supporting black civil rights and Congressional Reconstruction. In 1868 Palmer
was elected governor of Illinois. He used his veto power to reject
special-interest legislation and to resist the encroachment of federal authority
on states' rights, including the use of federal troops following the 1871
Chicago fire. Disillusioned by the corruption of the Grant administration, he
was a leader in the renegade Liberal Republican movement during the 1872
Palmer retired to private life for a decade then returned to politics in the
1880s, running unsuccessfully several times for the U.S. Senate and in 1888 for
governor. In 1891 he finally won election to the Senate as a pro-Cleveland
Democrat (1891-1897). When Williams Jennings Bryan received the Democratic
nomination for president in 1896, Palmer joined other monetary conservatives to
form the National (or Gold) Democrats. They nominated him for president, but he
endorsed William McKinley, the Republican candidate, and drew less than one
percent of the popular vote. In retirement he authored two books.