William M. Gwin

William McKendree Gwin (October 9, 1805 – September 3, 1885) was an American medical doctor and politician, serving in elected office in Mississippi and California. In California he shared the distinction, along with John C. Frémont, of being the state's first US senators. Before, during, and after the Civil War, Gwin was well known in California; Washington, DC; and in the South as a determined Confederate sympathizer.

William McKendree Gwin
United States Senator
from California
In office
January 13, 1857  March 4, 1861
Preceded byHimself (1855)
Succeeded byJames A. McDougall
In office
September 10, 1850  March 4, 1855
Preceded byState created
Succeeded byHimself (1857)
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's at-large district
In office
March 4, 1841  March 3, 1843
Preceded byAlbert G. Brown
Succeeded byWilliam H. Hammett
Personal details
Born(1805-10-09)October 9, 1805
Gallatin, Tennessee, US
DiedSeptember 3, 1885(1885-09-03) (aged 79)
New York City, New York, US
Political partyDemocratic
Alma materTransylvania University
ProfessionPhysician, politician

Early life

Gwin was born near Gallatin, Tennessee. His father was Rev. James Gwin, a pioneer Methodist minister, who served under the prominent Rev. William McKendree, America's first native-born Methodist bishop and namesake of the younger Gwin. Rev. James Gwin 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.

Political career

As the son of a chaplain who was at the Battle of New Orleans, the young Gwin served as a personal secretary to President Andrew Jackson during the latter's 2nd term. Gwin then 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 to 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 property in Paloma, California, where a gold mine was established. The Gwin Mine would eventually yield millions of dollars, providing him with a fortune. He also organized the Chivalry wing of the Democratic Party.

Before the admission of California as US state, Gwin was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate. He served from September 10, 1850 to March 3, 1855. He was a strong advocate of Pacific expansion and, in 1852, advocated a survey of the Bering Strait. Gwin presented a bill that was approved by the Senate and the Hous and, became the Act of March 3, 1851, which established a three-member Board of Land Commissioners to be appointed by the President for three-year terms (the period was twice extended by Congress, resulting in a five-year term).[1] The function of the 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 Bigler obtain the Ambassadorship to Chile. Broderick was appointed Chairman of the California Democratic Party, which 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 died. The split added turmoil to California's political scene, including bribery, physical intimidation, and non-stop political maneuvering. 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 the weakness, Broderick accepted Gwin's candidacy, and Gwin was re-elected to the United States Senate and served from January 13, 1857, to March 3, 1861. He took Joseph Heco with him to Washington, DC, to meet President James Buchanan. In 1858, Gwin challenged Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson to a duel, but the two resolved their differences through a Senatorial arbitration committee.

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, a survey of the Pacific coast, a navy yard, and station 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 new Republican Party's 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 Southern leaders to find a compromise that would avoid dissolution of the Union. Before hostilities broke out between the states, Gwin toured the South but 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.

Later life

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 secessionists, John Slidell (soon after involved in the Trent Affair) and J.L. Brent. However, President Abraham Lincoln intervened for their release, wishing to avoid an international incident, as Gwin had friends in Panama. 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, 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. Sheridan granted his original request for release to rejoin his family, which had also returned, but was countermanded by President Andrew Johnson, 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.[2]



  • United States Congress. "William M. Gwin (id: G000540)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved on 2009-5-11
  • Quinn, Arthur (1994). The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California. Crown Publishers: The Library of the American West, New York, NY.
  • Robinson, W.W. (1948). Land in California. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1891). "article name needed". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Albert G. Brown
Jacob Thompson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's at-large congressional district

March 4, 1841 – March 3, 1843
Served alongside: Jacob Thompson
Succeeded by
William H. Hammett
Robert W. Roberts
Jacob Thompson
Tilghman Tucker
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from California
September 9, 1850 – March 3, 1855
Served alongside: John C. Frémont and John B. Weller
Succeeded by
William M. Gwin
Preceded by
William M. Gwin
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from California
January 13, 1857 – March 3, 1861
Served alongside: John B. Weller, David C. Broderick, Henry P. Haun and Milton S. Latham
Succeeded by
James A. McDougall
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