Name:  John McAuley Palmer

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Born:  September 13, 1817
Died:  September 25, 1900
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
John 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 presidential campaign.

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.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.











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