About William McKendree Gwin
William McKendree Gwin (October 9, 1805 – September 3, 1885) was an American medical doctor and politician, serving in elected office in both the states of Mississippi and California. In California he shared the distinction, along with John C. Frémont, of being the state's first U.S. senators. Before, during and after the Civil War, Gwin was well known in California, Washington, DC, and throughout the south as a determined southern sympathizer.
Gwin was born near Gallatin, Tennessee. His father was the Rev. James Gwin, a pioneer Methodist minister, who served under the prominent Rev. William McKendree, America's first native born Methodist bishop and namesake for the younger Gwin. Rev. James Gwin had also served as a soldier on the frontier under General Andrew Jackson. William Gwin pursued classical studies and graduated from the medical department of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1828.
He practiced medicine in Clinton, Mississippi until 1833, when he became the United States Marshal for Mississippi, serving for one year. He was elected as a Democrat from Mississippi during the 27th Congress of 1841 to 1843. Declining a renomination for Congress on account of financial embarrassment, he was appointed, on the accession of James K. Polk to the Presidency, to superintend the building of the new custom-house at New Orleans, Louisiana. He moved to California in 1849 and participated in the 1849 California Constitutional Convention. He also purchased some property in Paloma, California where a gold mine was established. The Gwin Mine would eventually yield millions of dollars, providing him with a fortune to live on. He also organized the Chivalry wing of the Democratic Party, which was opposed by the Whig wing.
Upon the admission of California as U.S. state, Gwin was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate. He first served from September 9, 1850, to March 3, 1855. He was a strong advocate of pacific expansion and in 1852 advocated a survey of the Bering Strait. Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, Gwin presented a bill that, when approved by the Senate and the House, became the Act of March 3, 1851, which established a three-member Board of Land Commissioners, to be appointed by the President for a three-year term (the period was twice extended by Congress, resulting in a five-year total term of service). The function of this Public Land Commission was to determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California.
California Governor John Bigler turned to Gwin's rival David Broderick when Gwin failed to help him obtain the Ambassadorship to Chile. Broderick was appointed Chairman of the California Democratic Party which was split as a result. Gwin had a duel with Congressman Joseph McCorkle with rifles at thirty yards following an argument over his alleged mismanagement of federal patronage: Shots were fired by both men but only a donkey some distance off was shot dead. This introduced a period of turmoil in California's political scene with bribery, physical intimidation, and non-stop political maneuvering being prevalent. Although weaker than Gwin's faction, the Broderick faction was able to block Gwin from being re-elected senator in 1855. When the Know Nothings exploited this weakness, Broderick accepted Gwin's candidacy and he was reelected to the United States Senate, and served from January 13, 1857, to March 3, 1861. He took Joseph Heco with him to Washington, D.C. to meet his friend President James Buchanan.
During the 32nd and 33rd Congresses he was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs. During his second term he was also a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. While in the Senate, he secured the establishment of a mint in California, the survey of the Pacific coast, a navy yard and station, with large appropriations, and carried through the senate a bill providing for a line of steamers between San Francisco, China and Japan, by way of the Sandwich Islands. By 1860 he was advocating the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Tsar. Despite the newly formed Republican Party winning several important urban contests in California, Gwin's wing of the Democratic Party did very well in the California elections of 1859. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Gwin helped organize abortive secret discussions between Lincoln's new Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and some of Southern leaders to find a compromise which would avoid the permanent dissolution of the Union. Before hostilities broke out between the states, Gwin toured the South and then returned to California. Here Gwin's Chivalry faction spoke on the South's behalf. Gwin even considered that it might be possible for a Republic of the Pacific centered on California to secede from the Union. But when his party suffered badly in the elections of 1861, he saw there was little more that he could do in California to promote that cause.
Gwin returned east to New York on the same ship as Edwin Vose Sumner (commander of the Union Army's Department of the Pacific) and Mikhail Bakunin - an acquaintance of Joseph Heco. Sumner organized Gwin's arrest along with two other secessionist sympathizers but President Abraham Lincoln intervened for his release. Gwin sent his wife and one of his daughters to Europe returning himself to his plantation in Mississippi. The plantation was destroyed in the war and Gwin, a daughter, and son fled to Paris. In 1864 he attempted to interest Napoleon III in a project to settle American slave-owners in Sonora, Mexico. Despite a positive response from Napoleon III, the idea was rejected by his protégé, Maximilian I, who feared that Gwin and his southerners would take Sonora for themselves. After the war, he returned to the United States and gave himself up to General Philip Sheridan in New Orleans. General Sheridan granted his original request for release to rejoin his family, who had also returned, but that was countermanded by President Andrew Johnson, who was on the outs with Sheridan.
Gwin retired to California and engaged in agricultural pursuits until his death in New York City in 1885. He was interred in Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California.