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Carroll County Biographies

Judge James Shaw
Speaker Illinois House of Representatives
30 General Assembly

JUDGE JAMES SHAW (deceased) – From a long line of Scotch-Irish ancestry comes Judge James Shaw, born on May 3, 1831, a son of Samuel and Mary (Campbell) Shaw, who were among the earlier settlers in Illinois. The family, who were possessed of considerable means, came to this state to make their permanent home when it was a little more than a wilderness, and, although they were at first entirely unaccustomed to a frontier life so vastly different from the steady, even existence they had left, they were not long in adapting themselves to the requirements of that ahead of them. They made their home in a double log cabin; and here they found health, in plenty; content, in a surprising degree; and a very agreeable society, among themselves, sufficient to their every need. Under these strenuous conditions, “close to Nature’s heart” the nine children grew to a splendid maturity; and, aside from the strong instincts and cleanly traits they gained from their close association with God’s woods and rivers, they had instilled in them, from day to day, the culture and refinement that the parents had brought with them from their earlier home. In this double log cabin, which was a more or less central spot in relation to the other nearby settlers, the first Sunday school in the neighborhood was organized. Here also the literary tastes of the locality seemed to center, and the Saturday Evening Post, of which the Shaws received copies regularly, was a thing of much interest to all, for it was the only newspaper that was in circulation for them.

In this environment, James Shaw acquired a decided love of reading, and after his day’s work was done, he would pore over his books by the very indifferent light of a pine knot, “Plutarch’s Lives of White Men” and “The Nibelungen Lied” were among his favorite works and these he read and re-read many times.

Some years later, when the opportunity was offered, James Shaw went to Virginia, Ill., to attend school there prior to entering the Illinois College, Jacksonville, Ill., in 1853. During his college course the family moved to Lee county, and on his return to them there, James became a very intimate friend of an old Scotch Presbyterian minister, who had been a classmate and associate of Carlyle’s at Edinburgh University. With this most interesting old man, James spent much very profitable time studying during his vacations, and to him he attributed a strong influence on his future. A few of the books which he accepted from his white haired teacher and comrade were rare editions from the libraries of Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott. These formed the nucleus of the splendid library that later belonged to Judge Shaw.

Mr. Shaw’s course at college embraced those exciting days that presaged the Civil War. He was delegated to go to Bloomington, Ill, as a student representative of the Illinois College, at the organization of the republican party in 1856. Always a devout admirer of Lincoln’s, which admiration dated back to the visits of the noted statesman at their home, Mr. Shaw made frequent speeches in the cause of abolition; and, on one occasion, was bodily thrown out of a window of the building in which he was speaking. At another time he delivered the same address with President Sturtevant sitting by his side with a revolver before him on the desk. Later on in life he frequently wrote articles for the newspapers and periodicals. He was graduated from Illinois College with the Class of 1857, on June 18, of that year, and continued a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity.

After leaving college his interests were divided between geology and law. He followed the former for a time, becoming assistant state geologist. While holding this office he wrote two books, contributing largely to the “Illinois Geological Survey, which were published by the Smithsonian Institute. After doing this research work, in the mounds of the Mississippi Valley, he was urged by Major Powell to work with him permanently at the Smithsonian Institute; but this offer and an invitation to explore the Grand Canyon of the Colorado were both declined by Mr. Shaw that he might devote his undivided time to the study of law. He did considerable reading in the law office of Frederick Sackett, at Sterling, Ill., and, having been admitted to the bar, finally settled in Mt. Carroll, Ill., where he spent the remainder of his life and enjoyed a successful practice in his chosen profession. For many years he was attorney for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, and the Chicago, Burlington & Northern Railroads, but was forced to relinquish these duties, however, when he harkened to the call to public service. Four times was he elected to the State legislature, on his third term being the first speaker in the new State house. He was twice chairman of the Judiciary committee; and also chairman of the committee which revised the Illinois state constitution. With all educational matters that came up for discussion during his term of service, such as the compulsory school laws and various provisions for Illinois University, at Champaign, Ill., he was prominently identified. He was twice elected judge of the circuit court, in 1891, and 1903, and, although he was offered the position as legal head of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, he declined. Perhaps one of the most important decisions made by Judge Shaw was that in the case of the Freeport water works, for municipal ownership. Copies of this decision were asked for from all parts of the country, it being characterized as an “epoch making decision.”

Judge Shaw’s varied interests brought him in contact with the most prominent men of the state, and public life covered the most important period in the state’s history. He was a just and fearless judge, a man whose public and private life were above reproach. Judge Shaw always retained his love of literature that had been so noticeable in his youth; and he liked, too, to continue his close communion with nature. All of the vacations he allowed himself he spent in the woods of the north or in the mountains of the west. Despite the urgent call on his time and energies, his family were always his first consideration; and he was most devoted to his wife, Jane Harvey Shaw, and their three children, Hoyt, Undine and Effie. The death of Judge James Shaw deprived the state of a highly capable jurist; the cause of right, of a valiant supporter; and the world, of a true gentleman.

Transcribed and Contributed by Carol Parrish
Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Carroll County, Vol. II, Munsell Publishing Company, 1913, p. 884-886.

Hon. James Shaw
General Assembly 28th Session January 8, 1873
5. The Soldiers' Orphans' Home, at Normal, asks for $50,000 per annum for current expenses, and $2,000 for improvements and repairs. There was a good deal of prejudice awakened in the public mind, two years ago, against the home, in consequence of the mismanagement of its affairs previous to that time. The discovery of a very large outstanding indebtedness, unprovided for and not reported to the General Assembly, led to an investigation by a joint committee of the General Assembly, of which the Hon. James Shaw was chairman, which revealed the fact that CoL Snyder, one of the trustees of the home, had failed to account for about two thousand dollars of the funds in his hands, and also developed a very strong probability that the institution had been largely defrauded by the former steward, although no actual proof of any fraud on his part could be obtained.

We take great pleasure in stating that this stain upon the home, under the present management, has been entirely effaced j that the trustees and the ladies in charge have carefully guarded the funds committed to their hands, and have done a good work in the care of the children, for which they deserve the thanks and the confidence of the General Assembly. Their accounts are a model of accuracy and precision. The cost, per capita, of taking care of the soldiers' orphans, including the expense of clothing, feeding and educating them, has not exceeded $150 per annum, which is less than in any other institution in the state. In view of this record, we think that the whole amount asked may be safely granted.

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