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William Morris Stewart
(August 9, 1825 – April 23, 1909)


William Stewart was a U.S. senator from Nevada who played an important role in the congressional passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and its ratification by his home state legislature. 

He was born to Miranda Morris Stewart and Frederick Augustus Stewart on August 9, 1825, on the family farm outside Lyons, New York.  The family moved to Mesopotamia, Ohio, when he was a child.  Stewart left home at age 14 to attend West Farmington Academy (Ohio) and Lyons Union School (New York), earning tuition by working as a common laborer and schoolteacher.  With a tuition loan from a Lyons attorney, Stewart attended Yale University for three terms in 1849-1850, and then left for Nevada City, California, on a quest for gold.  After reading law, he was admitted to the California bar in 1852, and established a practice in Nevada City.  He quickly gained renown as an expert in mining law, and in 1852 chaired a conference of miners that set industry standards for claims and titles. 

Stewart attended the Whig National Convention in 1852, but later that year was appointed district attorney for Nevada County by the newly elected Democratic attorney general of California, John R. McConnell, who was Stewart’s law partner.  In June-December 1854, Stewart served as acting attorney general while McConnell was on a leave of absence.  Afterward, Stewart joined a prominent law firm in San Francisco, and in 1855 married Annie Elizabeth Foote, the daughter of one of his partners, former U.S. Senator Henry Foote.  The couple later had three daughters.

In 1855, after failing to win the American Party (“Know Nothing”) nomination for state attorney general, Stewart moved back to Nevada City, resuming his law partnership with McConnell.  Stewart continued specializing in mining law, and relocated to Virginia City, Nevada, in 1860, a year after the discovery of the nearby Comstock Lode.  He became the area’s foremost attorney, involved in complicated litigation over conflicting claims in which he favored large corporations against independent operations.  His legal work combined depth of knowledge, meticulous research, and a win-at-any-cost attitude. 

Under McConnell’s influence, Stewart had joined the Democratic Party in the 1850s, but switched to the Republican Party at the onset of the Civil War.  Stewart was instrumental in drafting a proposed state constitution for Nevada, but it was overwhelmingly rejected by the territory’s voters in January 1864.  After Nevada officially became a state on October 31, 1864, Stewart was elected as a Republican to represent it in the U.S. Senate.  He helped author the National Mining Law of 1866, which limited government oversight in order to encourage private development.  Initially a moderate on Reconstruction, he soon joined Republican radicals to oppose President Andrew Johnson’s policies.  In early 1869, Stewart proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit the denial of suffrage or public office based on race, color, or previous status as a slave.  The measure was replaced by the more moderate Fifteenth Amendment, which restricted discrimination in voting but not office holding.  He then used his influence to ensure that Nevada became the first state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment. 

For two months, Stewart’s private secretary was Mark Twain, who fictionalized his experience for the May 1868 issue of The Galaxy magazine.  Stewart was reelected in 1869, but became involved in the Emma Mine scandal of the early 1870s in which he tried to persuade a British diplomat to sell worthless mining stock to investors in Great Britain.  The scandal combined with a loss of financial backing forced him not to seek reelection.  After leaving office at the end of his term in March 1875, he focused on his lucrative law practice. 

For more than 20 years, Stewart encouraged the development of Washington, D. C., by helping Westerners invest in real estate there, supporting the public works agenda of political boss Alexander Shepherd in the early 1870s, and establishing with Francis G. Newlands the Chevy Chase Land Development Company in the 1890s.  The senator’s lavish home in Dupont Circle was known as “Stewart’s Castle.”

In 1887, Stewart was again elected to the Senate,  where he favored opening the Walker River Indian Reservation to mining companies and opposed federal oversight of voting rights (aimed at protecting black voters in the South).  Like other Western Republicans, Stewart favored the inflationist policy of the unlimited coinage of silver, which was a minority viewpoint in the party but popular among the silver miners of Nevada.  In 1893 and again in 1899, he was reelected to the Senate as a Silver Republican.  His monetary position led him to endorse Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896.  Stewart’s reelection campaign in 1899 against former partner Francis G. Newlands was marred by corruption charges on both sides.  Stewart rejoined the Republican Party in 1900.  Two years later, he won the first case argued before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, The Netherlands.  His wife died later that year, and he married May Agnes Cone, a widow, in 1903.  Stewart retired at the end of his senate term in March 1905, and remained in Washington, D.C., where he died on April 23, 1909.

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