US & World

Calif.'s first senators were split over slavery

Portrait of William Gwim.
Portrait of William Gwim.

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September 9 is California’s 160th birthday. One of its first senators was a pro-slavery Democrat.

William Gwin was born in Tennessee, studied to be doctor in Kentucky and later moved to Mississippi where he practiced medicine and served in the House of Representatives.

In 1849, Gwin followed the Gold Rush to California. After he helped write the new state’s constitution, the legislature sent Gwin to Washington to serve as one of its first US Senators. His pro-slavery views balanced the abolitionist position of California’s other Senator, John Fremont.

Gwin’s term ended in 1855. He seemed headed back to Washington for a second term, but Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the slavery debate in California stalled his appointment. He says Gwin sat out two years and didn’t fill out his full term because the state legislature came to an impasse over re-electing Gwin in 1855. The impasse ended two years later, and Gwin – still pro-slavery - went back to Washington.

Less than six weeks before the Civil War broke out, Gwin left the Senate – and left the country. Back in California, the bad blood over Gwin’s stalled nomination turned to real blood for another early California Senator. That’s a story for tomorrow.