In “A new Dawn at the statehouse?” I suggested that most of the statues and memorial that litter the statehouse grounds ought to be landfilled, they being either mediocre art or memorializing mediocre characters. Most, but not all. Among the state’s current collection of garden gnomes—and, because its location, probably one of the least visited—is the statue of John M. Palmer, the only man among them all who deserves be on the same lawn as Lincoln.
The good thing about statues is that they make it clear to later generations that the person depicted was Important. The bad things about statues is that they do not make it clear to later generations why. You will find more visitors who know about the fall of the Carolingian dynasty than know who John Palmer was. That’s a shame.
Palmer was a Carlinville man until 1866, when he and his large family decamped to Springfield where he joined the law firm of Milton Hay, one of the state’s most prestigious. In 1860 he helped engineer Lincoln’s presidential nomination at Chicago. During the Civil War, he was an up-from-the-ranks Civil War major general and military governor of Kentucky. Palmer simultaneously was a loyal supporter of Lincoln and a Radical Republican who protested arbitrary arrests by the military.
Elected Illinois governor himself in 1868, Palmer waged veto war on bills that gave special privileges to the money men. Palmer stood against monopolies and protective tariffs, for the eight-hour day, and unions’ right to organize. His positions were at odds with those of the later Republicans; he barely lost being elected governor again in 1888 and was elected U.S. Senator in 1890 as a Democrat.
Palmer stands with Thomas Ford among the former governors who have added to the shelf of useful Illinois books, in this case a memoir and a two-volume collection of biographical sketches of the Illinois bench and bar. Brand Whitlock, who studied law with Palmer, recalled his dignity and his independence; he was also “one of those legendary, heroic figures who actually did read all of Scott’s novels through every year.”