On October 31, while children of all ages don costumes and pursue candy, Nevadans will hold four parades around the state to commemorate their sesquicentennial. The event would have been impossible without a cast of characters that included Abraham Lincoln, George McClellan, Mark Twain, the Founders, some San Francisco-based plutocrats, a few prospectors, abolitionists, secessionist fire-eaters, and Samuel F.B. Morse, all mixed together to produce that supposedly sinful state where gambling, prostitution, and showgirl headdresses are allegedly found on every street corner.
Nevada’s road to statehood began in June 1859 with the discovery of a large vein of gold and silver near Virginia City. Two Irish prospectors, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley, deserved the credit, but another miner in the area, Henry Comstock, popped up and claimed that they had found it on his claim. With a lack of local government and certainty about who owned which claim, and where claims started and ended, they agreed to go in together. They and three other partners they picked up later sold their shares for the five figures—and the lode that bears Comstock’s name went on to produce hundreds of millions of dollars.
With thousands pouring into the area, Nevada became a territory on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln’s inauguration. The presence of an increasing population affected this development, but so did the secession of seven southern states, whose members of Congress, with the exception of Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, left the Union with them. The decades-long debate over slavery in the territories had, at least for the moment, ended, and a northern-dominated Congress created three new entities—Dakota, Colorado, and Nevada—without even referring to slavery.
One logical reason for that omission was that Lincoln would send anti-slavery leadership to those new territories. The new president struggled a great deal with patronage appointments, and sent several supporters or friends of supporters to Nevada territory. He named James W. Nye, a staunchly antislavery minor cog in Secretary of State William Henry Seward’s New York machine, the governor. Orion Clemens, who had read law in the office of Attorney General Edward Bates, arrived ahead of Nye as Territorial secretary. His appointment prompted his younger brother Samuel to head west; he hoped to get rich from mining, but instead gave it up for journalism and settled for being Mark Twain.
Nye concentrated on setting up the Territorial government and achieving statehood. As early as December 1862, the Territorial legislature set a vote for statehood to be held in September. In 1863, Nevadans voted by a 4-1 margin to hold a constitutional convention that November.
But economic and political power became an obstacle to statehood. Nevada leaders were divided over whether the gross or net proceeds of mining should be taxed. Convention chairman John Wesley North, a Territorial judge who later helped found Northfield, Minnesota, and Riverside, California, wanted to tax mines like any other property. Delegate William Stewart, an attorney who represented the corporations that increasingly dominated the Comstock Lode, advocated taxing net proceeds, after depreciation and deductions. The convention went along with North.
For their part, Stewart and his allies declared that the legislature would allow them to tax mining as they wished—a position that, as one of Stewart’s opponents said, “stunk in the nostrils of the people.” Nor did it help that North and Stewart were fighting over the interpretation of mining law and for control of the Union Party in the state. By the time Nevadans voted on their constitution in January 1864, they had had enough and rejected it by a 4-1 margin.
Three weeks after the vote, Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin introduced an enabling act for Nevada statehood that Lincoln signed on March 21, 1864. The next constitutional convention would meet with the legal imprimatur the previous gathering had neglected to obtain. The delegates who met later that year agreed on taxing net proceeds and to limit the percentage, a break for the mining industry that it still enjoys. Without the controversy, voters approved the proposed constitution on September 7, 1864, 10,375-1,284.
But Nevada’s troubles were far from over. Nye mailed the constitution to Washington, D.C., but it never arrived. Seward urged Lincoln to issue a statehood proclamation without it, but Lincoln refused. When Seward informed Nye, he ordered the document telegraphed to the capital—at 18,000 words and a cost of more than $4,300, the longest telegram sent to date. Lincoln received the transcription and declared Nevada a state on October 31, 1864.
For Nevadans to want statehood was one thing; for Lincoln and Seward and their allies to support it was another thing entirely. For many years, the myth has been popular that Lincoln wanted statehood for Nevada so that he could have the Comstock Lode’s gold and silver to help finance the Union war effort. But Nevada was a Union Territory. If anything, Territorial status gave Lincoln more control over its monies than he would have if it became a state.
Rather, what mattered most were politics and policy. During the summer of 1864, Lincoln had been certain that he would lose his bid for reelection to Democrat George B. McClellan, his onetime general-in-chief: the Union was faring poorly in the war, his party leaders were doubtful that he could win, and Lincoln was trying to become the first president since Andrew Jackson in 1832 to win a second term. One night in October, he made a list of the states and their electoral votes. It came out to a victory, but by a margin of 117-114. Later, someone—apparently Major Thomas T. Eckert of the War Department telegraph office—added Nevada’s three electoral votes to the Lincoln column to give him 120.
Also, Lincoln and his party realized that they would need support for the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery—in the House, where they had fallen short of the two-thirds majority required, and when the amendment went to the states, with three-quarters of them needed to ratify it. Nevada’s votes might be important.
Then, presuming that Lincoln won reelection and continued the war until the Confederacy had surrendered and the Thirteenth Amendment had become a reality, what would become of the millions of newly freed slaves and of the southerners who had tried to keep them in bondage? Nevada’s members of Congress might be helpful.
These factors combined to turn Nevada into the “battle born” state, one of two created under unusual circumstances during the Civil War; the other, West Virginia, had seceded from rebellious Virginia. Having achieved statehood, Nevada kept its end of the bargain. On November 8, 1864, its voters supported Lincoln, but he received only two of the new state’s electoral votes; the third elector was stuck in a blizzard and never made it to the state capital. But Lincoln’s electoral majority was a whopping 212-21, so he survived politically without Nevada.
Nevadans chose as their first congressman Henry G. Worthington, formerly a California attorney and politician and later the collector of the port of Charleston, South Carolina, and the U.S. minister to Uruguay. He voted for the Thirteenth Amendment, which passed the House on January 31, 1865, 119-56—a three-vote margin.
Their first U.S. senators were Stewart and Nye. Stewart was a newcomer to the Union Party and the Republican Party while Nye had long-standing anti-slavery credentials. Stewart went on to be a key figure in drafting the Fifteenth Amendment while Nye proved a consistent Republican vote.
So, Nevada played no tricks, at least then, and treated Republicans to what they wanted: a state loyal to their party and its policies. Nevada became a state, but at a cost. Just as it did in the fight over the constitutions, the mining industry continued to exert its influence over the state. The building of the transcontinental railroad, with the Central Pacific going through Nevada, made it one of the states where the railroad’s operators were determined to assure favorable conditions for taxation and regulation. One of the conditions of statehood was that Nevada had to cede claims to any land not already developed, which turned out to be about 87 percent of the present-day state. The reverberations of that requirement continue, with Nevada in on the ground floor of the Sagebrush Rebellion, whose supporters demand state control of federal land in the West, and still producing the occasional Cliven Bundy.
Lincoln probably had none of that in mind when he endorsed Nevada’s statehood. But, 150 years later, his influence and the impact of the Civil War still shape Nevada.