James H. Cartwright was born on December 1, 1842 in a log cabin in the Iowa territory. The cabin was one of three log cabins, which sat on what today is the location of the city of Maquoketa. His father was a Methodist preacher, and James was one of six children. As a boy, James was weak and fragile, and was not expected to live an exceedingly long life. However, as time went on he overcame his physical weakness. His family later moved to Mt. Morris, Michigan where he attended grammar school, and began to follow in his father’s footsteps by attending Rock River Seminary.
Cartwright’s was not able to finish seminary, as his attendance was infrequent due to the work he was required to do on the family farm. He had made, however, enough of a impact on his teachers, that he was recommended by the faculty for a position as a teacher in a nearby school.
Cartwright was 19 years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he enlisted in the 69th Illinois Regiment. After serving for three months his enlistment expired and he chose to return home to take care of his family, as his father had taken a commission as a Chaplin under General Sherman. In June of 1864, however, Cartwright reenlisted in the 144th Illinois Infantry which was intended to relieve some of the veteran troops until the end of the war. Although he was only 22, Cartwright was elected Captain of the regiment. Due to his young age, however, his superiors asked him to resign to make room for a more experienced officer. Cartwright resigned, but, nevertheless, his troops voted him Captain again, the position which he held until the end of the war.
His role as a Captain gave him enough money to return to school, and Cartwright entered into the University of Michigan Law school in 1865. At the time law school only took two years, and in 1867 he returned to Illinois and was admitted into the bar. In 1868 Cartwright was selected general attorney and solicitor for the building of a Chicago and Iowa railroad. This gave him extensive litigation experience, and he held this position until 1876. In 1873 he married Hattie L. Homles from Oregon, Illinois. The couple would have six children over the course of their marriage.
After leaving his position of general attorney to the railroad, Cartwright took up the practice of Law in Oregon, Illinois. He maintained his private practice in Oregon until 1888 when he was elected circuit court judge. In 1891 he was re-elected and began serving as an appellate judge in the 2nd district at Ottawa. In 1895, Cartwright was elected to fill a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court after the death of Justice Bailey. In the first year after his election, Cartwright wrote a remarkable 66 opinions, a number which only increased in subsequent years. He was later re-elected in 1897, 1906, and 1915. In total, he served 28 years on the Supreme Court and authored over a thousand opinions. Although he was active in the Republican Party, he never sought political office himself. Despite his hard work he kept a large hobby farm he used for relaxation, and was also a student of political history. His tireless work on the bench contributed to the fact that he died in office at age 81. On May 18, 1924, James H. Cartwright died less than a month before he was up for election for another nine-year term.
Next: George A. Cooke
- DeWitt, Clyde F. “Editorial Note: James H. Cartwright,” Illinois Law Review. Volume 15, November (1920): pages 271-277.
- “J.H. Cartwright, Justice, Is Dead: Supreme Court Member Taken While Arising.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963); May 19, 1924; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849-1986) pg. 1