If you covet a seat in the U.S. Senate, one way to get it is to find a place that is just about to become a state, and make yourself a leader in state politics. Come with the air of a man who already knows the ins and outs of Washington, D.C., and lesser men may give way before you.
That was William Gwin’s plan.
Gwin was born in Tennessee in 1805. By the time he came to California in 1849 he was 44 years old, and mining for gold was a young man’s game. But Gwin did not plan on striking it rich in the goldfields. He knew that there are other ways to make a fortune.
Gwin studied medicine at Transylvania University, Kentucky’s oldest place of higher learning. His father had served under Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans. That gave young William a ticket into the world of politics, and he served as President Jackson’s personal secretary during his second term and paid close attention to the maneuvers of a master political manipulator.
He then went to Mississippi with a political patronage job as U.S. Marshal for southern Mississippi. He engaged in land speculation, had a plantation with slaves, and incurred debts. In 1839 he got himself elected to Congress, which not only sent him back to Washington, but offered the bonus perk of making him immune to debt collection.
Ten years later, he was in Washington, but without political office. He had lost his last bid for congress to a up-and-coming Democrat named Jefferson Davis. In March 1849 he stood watching the inaugural parade of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor was a Whig, so there would be no political patronage from this administration. Standing next to Stephen Douglas, he told the Illinois senator that he planned to go to California, make it into a state, and be back in a year to present his credentials as a senator from California.
To become a state, California would need a constitution and a code of laws. Gwin was prepared. He astutely supplied himself with constitutions from Ohio and Iowa and then booked passage on a steamship bound on the Panama route.
Destiny awaited in California.