Previous history columns have explained how in 1878 U. S. Senator Aaron Sargent from Nevada City introduced the exact words later ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and how his wife, Ellen, was a women’s suffrage leader until her death in 1911. We have also written about a statue of the Sargents due for unveiling in 2020 by The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City.
But Sargent wasn’t the only Nevada City pioneer to author a Constitutional Amendment.
When Nevada was admitted to the Union in October 1864, William Morris Stewart –– a Nevada City miner-turned-lawyer who served as Nevada County’s second district attorney and California’s fifth attorney general –– was named to represent the new state in the U. S. Senate. Then, in the fall of 1868, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stewart took a leadership role in the Reconstruction struggle for “negro suffrage.”
“I read over all the various propositions for suffrage,” he later wrote, “and recognized that the general tone of all the propositions for the protection of negroes was in harmony with the sentiment of the campaign resulting in General Grant’s overwhelming (1868) victory.”
He then met with Grant, due to be inaugurated as president on March 4, 1869. The president-elect agreed that a Constitutional Amendment was needed and promised Stewart he would promote the idea whenever the opportunity arose, including a mention in his inaugural address.
The next time the Senate Judiciary Committee convened, Stewart moved that all negro suffrage proposals be brought to the committee for the purpose of developing Constitutional Amendment language palatable to two-thirds of both the House and Senate.
Committee Chairman Roscoe Conkling, from New York, said he would support the motion, then amended it to make Stewart responsible for reviewing all existing proposals and creating final language based on his best judgement, which set in motion a process by which a Nevada City pioneer would become author of the 15th Amendment.
Among the various proposals Stewart reviewed was one from Congressman Jack Brooks of New York, who asked that no one be denied to right to vote “by reason of his or her race, color or sex.”
A similar proposal came from Congressman George Julian of Indiana, who wanted a clause guaranteeing the right to vote, “without any distinction or discrimination whatsoever founded on race, color or sex.”
Women’s suffrage did not find its way into Bill Stewart’s proposed language, but if it had –– and a sufficient number of states had supported the idea –– the statue being dedicated here in 2020 might be of Bill Stewart, not the Sargents.
On January 15, 1869, after reviewing nearly a dozen suggestions from House and Senate members, Stewart offered the following for Senate Judiciary Committee consideration: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
It was supported by the committee and full Senate, but not by the House. When the Senate majority held firm to Stewart’s proposed language, a six-member joint conference committee was created with Stewart serving as the Senate’s committee manager.
In an effort to get the proposed Constitutional Amendment adopted by Congress and sent to the states for eventual ratification, Stewart agreed to drop three words from what he had written: “and hold office.”
As Stewart explained several years later, “I was willing to strike out these words, because I believed the right to vote carried with it the right to hold office.”
On March 30, 1870, the 15th Amendment was certified. Eight years later in 1920, Aaron Sargent introduced what became the 19th Amendment.
How many small towns in this nation can boast of having been home to two citizens who authored Constitutional Amendments? Not sure, but I suspect Nevada City stands alone in that regard.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.
About the photos:
William Morris Stewart, (1827-1909), Nevada County’s second district attorney, was assigned to write what became the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1868, Roscoe Conkling of New York asked Bill Stewart to prepare language for a proposed 15th Amendment.
This house on Zion Street in Nevada City that was built in 1855 is where Bill Stewart and his wife, Annie, lived following his time as California attorney general. Later, they would settle in what became the state of Nevada.
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