Palmer switched political parties throughout his life, starting out a Democrat. He became in turn an anti-Nebraska Democrat (against state sovereignty on slavery), a Republican, a Liberal Republican, returned to being a Democrat, then ended as a Bourbon Democrat. He said, "I had my own views. I was not a slave of any party," and added, "I thought for myself and [have] spoken my own words on all occasions."
Palmer was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1848. Between 1852 and 1855, he was a Democratic member of the Illinois Senate, but joined the Republican party upon its organization and became one of its leaders in Illinois.
He presided over the 1856 Illinois Republican Convention in Bloomington that founded the party in his home state. In 1859 he was the Republican candidate in a special election to a vacancy in the 36th Congress caused by the death of Thomas L. Harris, but he was defeated by John A. McClernand. He later became a Republican presidential elector in 1860, and was one of the leading people who got his friend Abraham Lincoln nominated for the presidency at the national convention in Chicago.
In 1861, he was appointed by Lincoln to be a delegate to the peace convention in Washington. It failed when no compromise could be reached.
Palmer took part in the capture of New Madrid and Island No. 10, commanding a division in the latter campaign. Taken ill in the field, he returned home to recuperate and raised a new regiment, the 122nd Illinois Infantry. Taking the field again in September, he was assigned by William S. Rosecrans to command the first division of the Army of the Mississippi in Alabama and Tennessee. On November 29, 1862, he was promoted to major general of volunteers, and was conspicuous in the Battle of Stones River, where his division held an important position within the Union lines.
Palmer effectively led his troops during the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. He commanded the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland during the Chattanooga Campaign (November 23–November 25, 1863), and served under George Henry Thomas in the Atlanta Campaign. Palmer's corps was a part of William T. Sherman's March to the Sea and the actions to capture Savannah, Georgia, late in the year. In early 1865, he asked to be relieved of command and was reassigned to command all Federal forces in Kentucky, helping to assert Federal control over the state for the next three years.
The party arose out of a split in the Democratic Party due to the economic depression that occurred under Democratic president Grover Cleveland. At the 1896 presidential convention, one of Palmer's main Illinois rivals was Governor John Peter Altgeld, who succeeded in getting his own candidate, former Illinoisan William Jennings Bryan, nominated for the presidency.
Palmer opposed free silver, which was a plan to place the value of silver to gold at 16-to-1 ratio, and then to tie the U.S. dollar to that value. Palmer noted that this plan ran contrary to the world market value of silver and gold, which was about 32 to 1. But, with Altgeld and Bryan in control of the Democratic convention, free silver won the day. Palmer believed it would have ruined the American economy, and he ran for president for a third party that was a breakaway group of Democrats. In waging this quixotic campaign, he was a key figure in the "last stand" of classical liberalism as a political movement in the nineteenth century.
Palmer and the other founders were disenchanted Democrats who viewed the party as a means to preserve the small-government ideals of Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland, which they believed had been betrayed by Bryan. In its first official statement, the executive committee of the party declared, the Democrats had believed “in the ability of every individual, unassisted, if unfettered by law, to achieve his own happiness” and had upheld his “right and opportunity peaceably to pursue whatever course of conduct he would, provided such conduct deprived no other individual of the equal enjoyment of the same right and opportunity. [They] stood for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of trade, and freedom of contract, all of which are implied by the century-old battle-cry of the Democratic party, ‘Individual Liberty’” The party criticized both the inflationist policies of the Democrats and the protectionism of the Republicans.
The 79 year-old Palmer received just over 1 percent of the vote in the election. Most supporters of the ideals of the National Democratic Party (United States) probably voted for McKinley because of his support of the gold standard.
He now has a school named after him located on the northwest side of Chicago, Illinois. Located at 5051 North Kenneth Avenue, 60630. John M. Palmer Elementary, [www.PalmerPride.org]
See The Personal Recollections of John M. Palmer: The Story of an Earnest Life, published posthumously in 1901.