During the lengthy administration of Secretary of State Edward Hughes (1933-1944), a new State Archives building was constructed, thousands of dollars in aid were given to public libraries, and significant changes were made in the State Library’s administrative hierarchy. These are only a few examples of the lasting impact that Hughes had during his nearly three terms in office.

Born July 26, 1888, in Chicago to Irish immigrant parents, Hughes originally studied law, but soon switched to the field of engineering. He eventually worked for the Nash Brothers construction firm, which was co-owned by Patrick Nash, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and one of the most powerful figures in Chicago politics. At age 26, Hughes was elected to the first of four terms in the Illinois Senate. While in office he introduced a bill making boxing legal in Illinois. Stints on the Cook County Board of Review and as deputy commissioner of Chicago Public Works followed before he ran for Secretary of State against incumbent William Stratton, the father of the future Illinois Governor, in 1932. 1

Hughes won by 59,148 votes in a Democratic landslide both nationally and statewide. One of his first acts as Secretary of State was to make daily deposits of all receipts from his office. This practice later became mandatory for all other state offices. Among Hughes’ chief responsibilities was the increasing supervision of Illinois motorists. In 1933, the Certificate of Title law, which worked to reduce auto theft in Illinois, went into effect. The law resulted in three reductions in theft insurance rates as well as an estimated savings to Illinois drivers of $3 million. Hughes also sponsored a driver’s license bill that required every Illinois driver to have a license by May 1, 1939. Applications for licenses after May 1 were considered only after examinations of physical ability, driving competency, and knowledge of traffic laws. A similar measure, the Financial Responsibility Law, went into effect on July 12, 1938, and required motorists who were convicted of negligent driving to prove their ability to pay damages. Hughes’ work with motor laws was an increasing challenge, as registration of passenger cars rose by nearly a half-million in his first nine years in office, reaching 1,748,253 by 1942. 2

Hughes is also remembered for his interest in the advancement of libraries across the state. In 1935, he sponsored the Library Relief Fund, which was created to distribute $600,000 to public libraries across the state. That same year, Hughes sponsored a bill providing $500,000 for construction of a new archives building, with an additional $320,000 coming from the federal Public Works Administration. The building, dedicated on Oct. 26, 1938, was one of only three of its kind in the nation and by far the largest. Margaret Cross Norton, superintendent of the State Library’s Archives Division, gratefully recalled Hughes’ efforts and even asserted that the State Archives had been a “pet department” of the Secretary. The reading room of the State Archives is named in Hughes’ honor. 3

In addition, in 1935 Hughes appointed a Superintendent of Library Services for the State Library, filling a position that had been approved 14 years before but never appointed. The superintendent was charged with overseeing all three divisions of the library and eliminating any duplication of services. Hughes also oversaw joint efforts of the State Library and Works Progress Administration to supply free reading to areas without public libraries and instituting bookmobiles to take books directly to residents not served by libraries. 4

An able campaigner who was undefeated in eight elections during his career, Hughes was a staunch pro-labor advocate, and became one of the most popular administrators in the state. His 1936 re-election bid was a rematch with Stratton, whom Hughes defeated by a resounding 543,133 votes. In 1940, Hughes was the lone Democrat on the state ticket to win office. 5

Hughes consistently refrained from controversy and rarely was the subject of criticism by the legislature, with whom he enjoyed a strong relationship. Although Governor Henry Horner and Hughes had their differences – Horner constantly battled the same Kelly-Nash political machine from Chicago that had embraced Hughes – neither man allowed their differences to affect their professional relationship or their personal admiration. 6

By late 1943, Hughes was being mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, but his health was beginning to fail. On Jan. 22, 1944, he announced that he could not seek a fourth term as Secretary. The victim of multiple heart attacks in later years, Hughes traveled to New York City for medical treatment in the summer of 1944. There he shared an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria with Colonel Matt J. Winn, one of the executives of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. 7

Winn found Hughes dead in a chair in their apartment late in the afternoon of June 28, 1944, one day before the Secretary was scheduled to join his family for a prescribed summer vacation in Maine. Hughes, under whom the State Library had achieved such substantial growth, was survived by a wife and one daughter. 8

  1. Illinois State Journal June 29, 1944; Howlett 127-128.
  2. Howlett 126-128.
  3. Howlett 126-128; Norton Interview 8.
  4. Norton Interview 6; Howlett 127; Sorenson.
  5. Howlett 128.
  6. Illinois State Journal June 29, 1944.
  7. Illinois State Journal June 29, 1944; Howlett 128.
  8. Ibid.