William M. Gwin got everything he wanted out of California, and he got it quickly.
Gwin arrived in San Francisco in June of 1849 and immediately jumped into the whirlwind of California politics. California at the time was under a military governor, but in effect there was no government and no legal system. Forty-niners were clamoring for representative government and American laws. Gwin had come to give them what they wanted.
Governor Bennett Riley had just called for a constitutional convention the day before Gwin arrived on the steamship. The election of delegates would be held on the first of August. Gwin stumped around the mining camps in support of the election and then put his name on the ballot in San Francisco.
He was elected to the constitutional convention and took a ship to Monterey. Other shipboard delegates were irritated by his “haughty and dictatorial attitude.” He was a boastful know-it-all, and that did not sit well with men who had been in California more than three months. But he did know his stuff when it came to politics and men deferred to his judgement.
Between the first of September and the thirteenth of October, the 48 delegates met in Colton Hall and hammered out a constitution for California. One of their jobs was to set the boundaries of California. We are so used to California as it looks today that we don’t think it might have been otherwise, but Gwin wanted California to consist of all the vast lands taken from Mexican in the Mexican War, except for Texas. Finally the men decided that the Sierra Nevada range would make a natural eastern boundary for the state.
As soon as the convention was over, Gwin went back to San Francisco to campaign for a seat in the state senate. He got that too, and when he went to the meeting of the legislature in mid-December in San Jose, the first order of business was to elect two U.S. senators. A seat in the U.S. Senate — that had been Gwin sole aim in coming to California and now it was within his grasp.
As he candidly wrote to his brother in 1864, he was “determined not to make money, but to devote all my energies to obtaining and maintaining political power.” (Not to worry — he made money too with a productive gold mine and through political jobbing.)
Dashing John C. Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” was easily the first choice for senator. Gwin had two other rivals for the other seat, but he managed to get elected on the third ballot. Then he and Fremont drew straws to see who would get the long term (six years) and who would get the short (two years). Gwin won that too. The lucky man was “in like Gwin.”
In January Fremont and Gwin left San Francisco for Washington D.C. to present their credentials to the U.S. Senate. Of course, California was not yet a state, so they couldn’t take their seats just yet. But how long could it take?