Life is not a smooth journey. People will face horrendous reversals and heartbreaking tragedies, so much that people will ask why bad things happen to good people. In American History, the second chance has so often turned adversity into success. Gov. Simon Hughes, the state’s fifteenth governor, faced many difficulties in his life, but he rose to the top of state politics as a trusted and respected figure.
Simon Pollard Hughes, Jr., was born in Carthage, Tennessee, not far from Nashville, in April 1830. He was one of seven children. Their education was sporadic as their father thought it best they learn the farming trade, only attending school when not needed during planting or harvest seasons. Their father was a Virginia transplant and a farmer. Simon Hughes, Sr., was widely respected as a man of integrity and was elected sheriff of Smith County in the 1830s. The younger Hughes watched his father’s political rise with great pride as he was elected to the state legislature in 1841.
Fortune turned sharply against the family. In 1842, Hughes’s mother died. The distraught elder Hughes declined to run for re-election and moved with his young children out West to start over. They settled in Bowie County, in the northeast corner of Texas, to resume their lives as farmers. The years in Texas, however, were short and unhappy. In 1844, Hughes’s father also died. And now Hughes was only 14 years old and orphaned, left to care for his own younger siblings.
Some relatives heard of their plight and brought them to Pulaski County. Hughes worked as a farm laborer for couple of years until an uncle arranged to have him brought back to Tennessee for an education. His uncle taught at a modest preparatory school, which gave Hughes the background he needed to advance to college. In 1848, he enrolled at Clinton College in his native Smith County. To pay for his studies, he took a series of jobs. He eventually found a job as a teacher, even though he had not completed his own education. As a teacher, the pay was still too low to continue his studies. After little more than a year in college, he quit and returned to Arkansas.
He settled in Monroe County in eastern Arkansas and picked up work on local farms and began meeting prominent local officials. In 1853, the county sheriff was stepping down and endorsed Hughes for election. Though he had no formal experience as a law officer, Hughes ran energetically for the position and won. He was re-elected two years later. He had never been able to complete his own education, but he kept studying and learning. Hughes studied law carefully in his years as sheriff. When he declined to run for another term in 1857, he was able to win admission to the state bar to be able to practice law.
He married, had nine children, and enjoyed a steady and profitable career as an attorney. He stepped back from politics for a few years as his family grew and his career settled. The looming Civil War, however, drew his attention and brought him back into the political mix once again. In 1860, he jumped back into politics to campaign across the state for the election of Sen. John Bell of Tennessee for president on the Constitutional Union Party ticket. Hughes, like Bell, was opposed to secession and was determined to keep the Union intact. Bell lost the election, but Hughes continued to urge Arkansas to reject secession. Once it became clear that Arkansas would join the Confederacy, Hughes gave in to the inevitable and enlisted in the Confederate Army.
The Civil War brought new tragedy to his life but also marked a turning point in his career that would lead him to becoming governor and make him one of the most prominent legal minds in the state.