A force for half a century

Governor Shelby Moore Cullom.
In the 2nd floor portrait gallery of the Illinois state Capitol known as the Hall of Governors, a casual observer might do a double take looking at a portrait of a subject who looks an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln. His dark suit, thin face and beard certainly do bear a strong resemblance to the Great Emancipator. The lanky, distinguished 17th Governor of Illinois, Shelby Moore Cullom, had noticed the resemblance himself, and he took it as a point of pride that he looked so much like the man who had been friends with his father and who had guided his study of the law.

By the time he died in 1914 at the age of 84, Shelby Cullom had been a force in Illinois and national government for half a century, a political career spanning from the days just before the Civil War to the eve of World War I, and one which had put him in the orbit of almost every American President from Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson.

Shelby Moore Cullom was born in Kentucky in 1829, the last of a line of Illinois Governors to be born in the Bluegrass State. He came to Tazewell County, Illinois, as an infant, and lived the rest of his life in Illinois. His father, Richard, was a Whig state legislator. This was how he came to know Lincoln, who advised him to study law in a local Springfield firm. Tragedy struck the young lawyer when his wife, Hannah, died. With two daughters to care for, Cullom soon married his late wife’s sister, Julia.

He was admitted to the bar in 1855 and almost immediately went into politics, winning the office of Springfield city attorney in his first year. Cullom was elected to the Illinois House in 1856, lost in 1858 and came back and won in 1860. With the storm clouds of the Civil War gathering, his colleagues in the 22nd General Assembly elected him Speaker of the House, the first Republican to hold that post. But higher office called him, and in 1862 he sought a seat in the Illinois Senate. With bad news from the battlefront dragging down the Party of Lincoln that fall, he was defeated.

Cullom’s old friend in the White House appointed him to a board overseeing War Department procurement in Illinois, a post helpful to the war effort, but one which was not uniformed military service. Years later it would be revealed that Cullom may have been exempted from military service because of a heart condition which caused fainting spells. Nevertheless, his lack of military service kept him from membership in the most powerful political group of the late 19th Century, the Union veterans organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, a non-association which makes his political success in the following decades even more of a feat.

Cullom didn’t stay on the political sidelines for long, running for and winning a seat in Congress in 1864. He was a faithful ally of Lincoln, and when the President was assassinated in 1865, he was a member of the funeral party in Springfield. During the post-war period of westward expansion he chaired the House Committee on Territories. He was defeated for re-election in 1870 and returned home to Springfield, where he became President of the State National Bank. He retained enough political clout that in 1872 he was selected to head the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. There he nominated his fellow Illinoisan Ulysses S. Grant for a second term in the Presidency, giving what is believed to be the shortest convention nominating speech in history: a single 82-word sentence.

Back home, Cullom found himself embroiled in a local fight which would restore him to elected office. An effort was being made to move the state’s capital city northwest to Peoria, and Cullom, by now a longtime Springfield resident, helped lead the fight to stop it. With the state’s sixth (and current) Capitol Building under construction in downtown Springfield, Cullom was successful in the fight to keep the seat of government in the city. He was returned to the Illinois House, and once again served as its Speaker.

By the 1870s, railroads were crisscrossing the nation, and much Illinois commerce was dependent on the locomotives and freight cars which delivered it to markets. Railroad regulation was becoming a critical issue in statehouses and in Washington. Speaker Cullom succeeded where previous legislatures had failed and saw a law regulating railroad rates enacted, and upheld as Constitutional.

But his reward was to be once again removed from power, losing the Speakership to Elijah Haines. Once again, he set his sights higher and sought the Governorship in 1876. The field included a group of former Generals and other Army officers, including the incumbent Governor, John Beveridge, a veteran of Gettysburg. But Cullom worked the nominating convention in advance and arrived with just enough delegates to secure the nomination. In the fall he won by just under 7000 votes, the closest Illinois gubernatorial election in over 50 years.

A portrait of former Illinois Governors. Governor Cullom is seated second from the right.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

Coming to office amidst the lingering economic depression of the 1870s, Cullom advocated austerity in government, seeking to confine state government’s activities to a few, basic functions, while still caring for the poor and financing public education. He sought to offload the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which he argued had become obsolete in the era of railroads. He modernized the state militia; now known as the National Guard; at a time when labor unrest was growing in large and small cities in the state.

Cullom held off intense challenges in both the primary and the general election in 1880 to become only the second Illinois governor to be re-elected to a consecutive term, winning with the same percentage of the vote as in his narrow 1876 race. Early in his second term, Cullom reported that the state was at long last debt-free, this after nearly four decades of effort to pay down debt accumulated from failed state banking and infrastructure policies of the 1840s. The state’s phenomenal growth in population and economic activity was the main driver of the settlement of the debt.

Halfway through his second term, Cullom heard Washington calling once again. With U.S. Senators appointed by state legislatures in those days, Cullom saw his chance when Republicans won majorities in the legislature in 1882. He bested former Governor and Senator Richard Oglesby and a handful of other candidates for the seat, and in 1883 Shelby Moore Cullom began a 30-year career as a U.S. Senator.

As soon as he arrived in Washington the issue of railroad regulation flared into controversy once again. State after state had attempted to regulate the railroads, only to see their efforts struck down as unconstitutional. Only the Illinois law which Cullom had shepherded to passage a decade earlier had been able to pass muster, and now he sought to apply its lessons to the federal government.  His efforts led in part to the 1887 creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission to exercise Congress’s Constitutional role under the commerce clause to regulate commerce, “among the several states.”

In the Senate, Cullom chaired the committee overseeing interstate commerce, as well as eventually foreign relations and “expenditures of public money.” He helped write the laws for the newly-acquired Hawaii territory, and served as a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution for almost three decades.

Cullom developed a reputation which today would be described with the cliché: “a workhorse, not a show horse.” He built relationships with his fellow legislators and accomplished legislative goals through one-on-one persuasion, not soaring oratory. He also assembled a patronage army in Illinois, known as the “federal crowd.” It was sufficient to keep him in office for five terms, (while every other Senator from Illinois who served alongside Cullom failed to win re-election) but it could not get him the Presidential nomination he sought on at least three occasions.

Only once did a political adversary get the better of him in Illinois: in 1896 an up-and-coming utility executive named Charles Dawes helped his candidate for the Presidency, William McKinley, to overcome the opposition of Cullom’s organization and win the nomination. Dawes would go on to serve as Vice President of the United States in the 1920s.

Again and again, Cullom survived contests at the ballot box, from sitting and former Governors, war heroes and any number of challengers. But by 1912, the octogenarian Senator faced a new and different test. The progressive era of the early 20th century had brought about the idea of popularly electing Senators, rather than having them chosen by state legislatures. Though it would not be required by law until the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Illinois held an advisory Senate primary in 1912. Cullom finished in second place, behind former Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor Lawrence Sherman. He could have asked the incoming state legislature to grant him another term anyway, but he reluctantly decided to retire.

On his way out the door of the Senate chamber in Washington, however, he was chosen for a great honor. Nearly fifty years after the death of his friend and political mentor, an effort had been launched in Washington to construct a memorial in honor of President Lincoln. Members of Congress could think of no one more appropriate to head up such an endeavor as the retiring Senator from Illinois, who by now was the only member of the Lincoln funeral party from 1865 who was still alive. He accepted the honor and as chairman and resident commissioner, he helped guide the design of the Lincoln Memorial during the last year of his life. Construction began one month after his death.

Shelby More Cullom died in January 1914. His 30 years in the Senate remain the longest such term of office for any Senator from Illinois. He was buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, just yards from the tomb of his friend Abraham Lincoln.