Simon P. Hughes spent a life facing tragedy and reaching for something better in his life. He was orphaned at 14. His attempt at a college education was scuttled by his own poverty. He struggled to make ends meet as a farm laborer, teacher, or any number of other trades. When he became a sheriff and had the time and means to study law, he put himself back on a track of success. By 1860, with war clouds looming over the nation, Hughes saw tragedy approaching once again. He fought and lost the fight to keep Arkansas in the Union. The Civil War, however, would mark another important turning point in his life.
Hughes had not been in favor of secession, believing it to be a terrible mistake. Nevertheless, he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861. The men of his unit elected him captain of the 23rd Arkansas Infantry, as Civil War units elected their own officers. From there, Hughes quickly rose to lieutenant colonel. After the disastrous battle of Shiloh in 1862, the unit was reorganized. He enlisted in a Texas cavalry unit for the remainder of the war. As the war worsened for the South, Hughes took his family to Texas for safety in 1864.
The desperate flight to safety exacted a crushing toll on Hughes. A young son died of illness once they reached Texas. Of his nine children, only five would reach adulthood.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Hughes returned to Arkansas and resurrected his law practice in Monroe County. He was elected to one term in the state legislature in 1866. In 1874, he served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention that produced the constitution still in use by the State of Arkansas. From there, he was elected attorney general and served until 1877.
His time as attorney general became noted for his legal advice guiding the new state government as the new constitution took hold. He also fought railroad interests as they tried to fight the taxes imposed on the corporations in court. Hughes represented the state personally in several railroad tax cases. One case in particular would drag on for ten years.
In 1876, Hughes ran for governor. In the ten-candidate race for the Democratic nomination, Hughes was defeated by State Auditor William Miller. Hughes settled into a law practice in Little Rock and waited for another opportunity.
That next chance came in 1884. Hughes defeated former Confederate Col. John G. Fletcher for the Democratic nomination in a tight contest. Hughes then defeated Republican Thomas Boles by 45,000 votes to capture 65% in the general election.
After his inauguration, Hughes faced the continuing problems of state debt. The legislature created the State Debt Board to consider how to pay off the state’s heavy debts from Reconstruction. The problem continued to frustrate the state for many more years. The state had ceased borrowing to keep from digging itself in any further, but its poor credit would have limited its borrowing abilities regardless. Nevertheless, Hughes prided himself on not borrowing but still finding ways to fund modest improvements to state buildings and state colleges. He would later create the office of state geologist who undertook a survey of the state that ultimately proved invaluable to state mining interests and the later oil boom.
The spectacle of public hangings created a grotesque circus-like atmosphere where parents actually brought children to witness the death of another human being. The occasions were made all the worse when mistakes with the noose sometimes decapitated the condemned. The sight made no impact on the crowds eager to watch nor those inclined to commit such heinous acts that warranted capital punishment. Hughes thus signed a law banning public executions.
The 1886 election was more complicated. Across the nation, farmers were growing increasingly angry over falling crop prices, blaming railroads and bankers for their plight. In Arkansas, a movement called the Agricultural Wheel rapidly gained support in western portions of the state, attacking the Democratic establishment and its perceived support of railroad interests at the expense of the farmer. The group attracted enough farm support to split the Democrats and possibly elect Republicans in the process.
Hughes remained popular among voters. He stayed calm during the railroad strike that year, and his overall record from his first term was fairly positive. Hughes won the three-way election that September with 54.5% of the vote, easily defeated Republican nominee Lafayette Gregg, a former state Supreme Court justice, and the Wheeler candidate, Charles Cunningham, who received only 11.5% of the total vote.
In 1889, Hughes was elected to a new position on the state supreme court. Friends and critics alike commented on his even-handedness as a judge. In 1904, Hughes, now 74, elected to retire. The announcement was met with disappointment. He lived his final years quietly in Little Rock before his death in 1906.