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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 249

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This is the grave of Shelby Cullom.

Born in 1829 in Monticello, Kentucky, Cullom’s family moved to Illinois when he was an infant. Cullom was a teacher for awhile and then went into politics, being a committed Whig. He was admitted to the bar in 1855, which in this era was a normal path for someone who wanted a political career. He was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1856 as a Whig, but that party collapsed entirely shortly after, not even having run anyone for the presidency that year. Cullom supported the Know-Nothings that year and was an elector for them, although they didn’t win any states except Maryland. He only served one term, but returned in 1860 as a Republican.

Cullom went to Washington after the 1864 election and stayed there through the 1870 elections. He returned to Springfield for awhile, was again elected to the state legislature and served as Speaker for a term. He was then elected governor of Illinois in 1876, where he was the first governor in the state’s history reelected after serving a full 4-year term. Among his “accomplishments” there was using the state militia to put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 with great violence, which earned him the friendship of the railroad capitalists. So he was a bog-standard Republican, totally OK with killing some workers in the name of order. He stated, “the vagrant, the willfully idle, was the chief element in all these disturbances.” What he meant here was that people who didn’t have a job were unemployed because they were lazy. Nevermind that the nation had not really recovered from the Panic of 1873 or that railroads were routinely killing people in cities by running them over at unsafe street crossings. Nope, just lazy rioters.

Cullom resigned in 1883 to become a senator. He would remain in the Senate until 1913. Interestingly, given his previous obsequiousness to the railroads, one of the most important things he did in the Senate was to push through the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which was a mild reform bill trying to undermine railroad monopolies and the incredibly unfair rates they charged small shippers, especially farmers. The bill was typically weak for the time and did not give the government the power to set shipping rates, which might have actually solved the problem. Nonetheless, Cullom believed the federal government was the only entity powerful enough to regulate the railroads. Cullom also was very active in attacking polygamy in Utah and was in the midst of getting a bill passed in Congress that would ensure Utah could never become a state without making the practice illegal when Mormon leaders acquiesced and outlawed the practice, at least officially. Cullom had a general interest in the nation’s territories and imperialism. President McKinley named him the commission to establish American government in Hawaii in 1898, for instance. Cullom, by 1903 the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked closely with Theodore Roosevelt to cleave Panama from Colombia and then taking a chunk of that new nation for the Panama Canal, not exactly a highlight in American relations with the world. He was also a major player in getting the federal money to build the Lincoln Memorial. Cullom had known Lincoln in Illinois and very much looked up to him. He also hated Benjamin Harrison because that president was so utterly indifferent to sucking up to senators as part of the patronage politics of the Gilded Age. And I know everyone is excited to learn more about Benjamin Harrison today.

Cullom wrote an autobiography in 1911 and left the Senate in 1913. He died a year later, at the age of 84.

Shelby Cullom is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois. If you would like this series to visit more Illinois senators, and I don’t really know why you would want that, but hey who I am to judge, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joseph Medill McCormick is buried in Winnebago, Illinois and the man, the myth, the legend Charles Deneen is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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