The Public Library Act of 1872 was signed into law by Governor John McAuley Palmer, a towering political figure in 19th-century Illinois history. The signing was likely a reflection of Palmer’s own love of reading and education.

Born in Scott County, Kentucky, on Sept.13, 1817, young Palmer settled near Wood River, Illinois, with his family and attended the now-defunct Shurtleff College in Alton before relocating to Carlinville in 1838. Palmer was one of many significant figures of 19th-century Illinois history to hail from Carlinville, a list that also included Richard Rowett and John I. Rinaker. He was admitted to the bar that fall and became a member of the 1848 Illinois Constitutional Convention. 1

In 1853, Palmer took a seat in the Illinois Senate as a Democrat but broke with the Stephen A. Douglas faction of that party the following year over his protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was the first of six political changes for the impulsive, idealistic Palmer, a man who stood on principle, rather than party. Even Palmer’s political enemies conceded his honesty and integrity. He joined the new Republican Party in 1856. 2

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Palmer was named colonel of the 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and held numerous divisional commands in the western theater, earning promotion to major general in November 1862. He later commanded the XIV Corps, one of the most respected fighting units of the war, and was described by a peer as “one of the ablest and best generals in the army.” Palmer resigned from the Army in 1864 and was subsequently appointed military governor of Kentucky by Abraham Lincoln, a personal friend. 3

By then a household name in Illinois, Palmer moved to Springfield in 1867 and was elected Governor the following year. He served during the destructive Chicago Fire of 1871. Although many historians consider him one of the best Governors in state history, Palmer turned down a certain renomination to switch to the Liberal Republican movement. He returned to the Democrats in the mid-1870s. 4

In robust health in later years, Palmer ran again for Governor in 1888, losing to Joseph Fifer by only 12,547 votes. Often nominated for the U.S. Senate during his life, he finally won election to the Senate in 1891 at age 74. But he again found it impossible to remain with his party during the debate over the gold standard and ran for President in 1896 on the third-party Gold Democrat ticket, a splinter group. His vice presidential candidate was Simon Bolivar Buckner, a former Confederate general. Palmer’s plank drew the support of President Grover Cleveland and future President Woodrow Wilson. The 79-year-old Palmer campaigned nationwide and garnered only 133,148 votes, but many writers agree that his effort helped defeat the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. 5

Palmer wrote two books near the end of his life, including Bench and Bar of Illinois and his memoir, Personal Recollections. He died in his sleep at his Springfield home on Sept. 24, 1900, and is buried in Carlinville. Palmer’s home at Second and Adams Streets was only a block north of the current site of the Illinois State Library. 6

As a testament to Palmer’s stature in Illinois history, a statue of him was dedicated on the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol on Oct. 16, 1923.

  1. Tom Emery, 19th Century Echoes; George Thomas Palmer, A Conscientious Turncoat, 2, 5,18-20. For more on Rowett and Rinaker, see Tom Emery, Richard Rowett: Thoroughbreds, Beagles, and the Civil War, as well as Emery, 19th Century Echoes.
  2. Palmer 24-29, 276. Palmer’s excellent biography covers in detail the many changes in political party for Palmer. George Thomas Palmer, a leading 20th-century Springfield physician who earned acclaim for his work with tuberculosis, was the grandson of John M. Palmer.
  3. Quote, Palmer 116; Kentucky, Neely 163-165, 232. For details on Palmer’s military career, see Palmer or Mark Mayo Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary.
  4. Howard, 1st ed., 340, ranks Palmer among the 10 greatest of Illinois governors. Palmer’s term as governor, Palmer 215-243, Neely 232.
  5. Palmer’s 1888 bid, Palmer 260-261; U.S. Senator, Palmer 262-282; Third party, Palmer 273-282, DeGregorio 350, 360-361, 414, Paolo Coletta, William Jennings Bryan: Political Evangelist 1860-1908, 192.
  6. Palmer 283-284; Emery, 19th Century Echoes.