Sunday, August 26, 2007

Senator William McKendree Gwin (1805–1885); Supporter of Slavery; Bad Shot

William McKendree Gwin was born in Tennessee on October 9, 1805. After graduating from Transylvania University in Kentucky, Gwin practiced medicine in Clinton, Mississippi, for five years. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat from Mississippi, serving for only two years.

Gwin moved to California in 1849 and helped to draft the new state's constitution as a member of the California Constitutional Convention. After California was admitted to the Union, Gwin was elected as the state's first U.S. Senator in 1850.

Although Senator Gwin rose to become Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, he is best remembered for his actions following his tenure in office. As a transplanted Southerner, he was an outspoken supporter of slavery.

After leaving the Senate, Gwin was arrested twice for disloyalty because of his continued vocal support of the Confederate cause. In 1863, he traveled to France in an attempt to convince Emperor Napoleon III to lend his support to American colonization of the Mexican state of Sonora. Gwin planned to resettle American slave holders in Mexico as a compromise measure to resolve the slavery issue. This proposal generated enormous controversy on both sides of the border.

One of my favorite stories is told by former journalist Robert O'Brien in his book "This is San Francisco." Gwin got into an argument with a gentleman named J.W. McCorkle, which resulted in a challenge to a duel. The two men met near the Santa Clara County line with rifles in hand and thirty paces apart. After three missed shots and a dead mule, the two men decided that if they kept this up, someone might get hurt. They ended up heading to the nearest bar for a round of bourbon and a good laugh.

Gwin later retired to California, where he lived until his death in 1885.

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