REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
MILTON S. LATHAM
By JUDGE GAVEN D. HALL.
Under the most favorable circumstances, it is at all times a very difficult task to write a biographical sketch of a cotempoary. This difficulty, is greatly increased when the person whom you would portray is a member of the same community, and when the truthfulness and fidelity of the portrayal must be submitted to the impartial judgment of those who have enacted important parts in the drama of which he is made the chief character. The prominent events in the career of the individual under consideration are of such recent occurrence—are so blended and identified with the experience of every old Californian—as to enable the chronicler to analyze his subject without viewing him through the misty haze of remote years, and to comment from an actual and personal knowledge of events.
Mr. Latham's ancestors came to America in the Mayflower. His father was a native of Virginia, and his mother of New Hampshire. He was born in the State of Ohio on the 23d day of May, 1829, and was fortunate in being the son of a gentleman of eminent local celebrity, and a person of liberal education and a generous nature. Enjoying the advantages of high social position, professional distinction, and a mind adorned and enlarged by the refinements of education, his father appreciated the value of thorough education, and bestowed upon his son all the advantages to be derived from cultivated society and collegiate training.
In 1846, he graduated from Jefferson College, Pennsylvania, and left his Alma Mater with a reputation for scholarship, energy, and industry, that gave promise of his future success and distinction. Soon after graduating, he removed to Alabama, where he studied law. Having chosen the law for a profession, his earnest devotion to study, his aptitude and genius, secured him license to practice at an early age. In 1848, he was appointed Clerk of the Circuit Court of Russell county, Alabama.
At the period when California was the focus of public interest and attention, Mr. Latham selected the Golden State as the field for his future labors and aspirations. On the 5th of April, 1850, he arrived at San Francisco, and at once entered upon the active practice of his profession. Sacramento having been made the capital of the State, many of our eminent lawyers were attracted thither, and Mr. Latham among them. His extreme youth attracted general sympathy, his suave and genial manners made him universally popular, while his abilities commanded respect from the members of the bar as well as the entire community, and soon secured him a very profitable business. So rapid were his strides to public notice and favor that at the ensuing general election after his arrival in 1850, he was elected by a large majority to the important office of District Attorney for the Sacramento Judicial District, comprising Sacramento and El Dorado counties. His official position gave him an enlarged theatre of action and a more extended and familiar acquaintance with the people. While his civil practice had established his claim as a logical and philosophical student of the law, his opportunities as an advocate soon won him a reputation among the people excelled by no member of the profession in the State at that day. Indeed, his advancement was so great, his hold upon the popular mind so fixed, that in 1851, he was elected Representative to Congress, triumphing over competitors who had already established a national fame.
Mr. Latham fully sustained at the forum of Congress the reputation he had won at home; and the honored attitude he occupied toward his colleagues, and his faithful efforts to secure legislation for the best interests of California, were rewarded by a reëlection, and he remained her representative till 1856.
It will be remembered that the affairs of the Collectorship of the Port of San Francisco had not uniformly been administered so as to give entire satisfaction to either public or private judgment. It is not our province to discuss political subjects, or to inquire into the Collector's office, that gave the Government extreme solicitude and difficulty in selecting the proper person to take charge of the office, and bring "order out of chaos." It is sufficient to say, while it was a source of great public satisfaction, that from a host of eager aspirants, Mr. Latham, unsolicited and in fact against his protest, was invited and induced to accept the position. This distinguished compliment from the Government was based upon the character for honesty, integrity, and fidelity to duty that Mr. Latham had won in his Congressional career; and he acquired additional credit and honor for the exactness, dispatch, and discipline that characterized every department of the Customs during his administration.
Mr. Latham now determined to ignore the blandishments of office, and devote himself to the more remunerative and less exciting pursuit of private business: to use his own words on a memorable occasion, he had "resolved to quit 'the filthy pool of politics.'" These hopes of quiet happiness and repose were not, however, to be realized. The exciting canvass of 1859 snatched him from contemplated retirement. The influence of their young favorite was warm in the hearts of the people, and they determined to manifest their approval of his past stewardship by the bestowal of yet higher honors. In that year he was nominated for Governor of California by the Democratic State Convention, (his principal competitor being Hon. John B. Weller) and was elected by a very large majority, receiving over 60,000 votes—his competitors being Hon. John Currey, afterwards Supreme Judge, and Hon. Leland Stanford, afterwards Governor of the State.
It was incumbent on the Legislature, which was chosen at the same general election, and which convened in January, 1860, to elect a successor to the Hon. David C. Broderick, United States senator, then lately deceased. This important matter elicited a degree of political feeling and public interest unwonted even in the arena of California politics. Those national questions that finally culminated in the Great Rebellion were then being everywhere discussed. All felt the absolute necessity of having a representative in the United States Senate who should be a representative in fact—not merely of California or of a political party—but of the patriotic impulses of the people at large. In this great crisis, the Shakesperean theory of fortune was fulfilled, and Mr. Latham became the recipient of her gifts. Scarcely had he assumed the office of Governor and delivered his inaugural, when he was called on to resign and assume the senatorial toga. Mr. Latham presented his credentials and took his seat in the United States Senate in March, 1860, and served in the Senate until March 4th, 1863.
This brief summary of events affords as eulogy of which any man might be justly proud; and a lengthened commentary upon them would be a work of supererogation. Justice to distinguished merit, admiration for the unparalleled promotion to conspicuous and exalted station that mark the career of Mr. Latham, would seem to warrant, if not exact, some further comment.
Upon Mr. Latham's advent in California, already attracted to her shores was a population above ever other people of America distinguished for their dash, intelligence, and enterprise. Among them were to be found able representatives of every profession, trade, and calling— Professors of Colleges, ex-Governors, and Members of Congress, divines and lawyers—who had become noted throughout the country. These, according to their various tastes and avocations, were earnest rivals, struggling in the most exciting and eager race of life the world ever witnessed. The phantom of wealth—the spur of necessity—the hopes of ambition—seemed to cauterize human nature and freeze the heart against all impulses of generous emulation, and make every man an uncompromising competitor. To succeed in such a contest, to win and command the warm sympathy of the people, and to retire from the struggle with their abiding confidence and trust, was to create a monument more enduring than any entablature graven on steel or adamant; and affords a model well worthy the imitation of the youth of our country.
No man in America has filled so many important offices in so brief a time as has Mr. Latham, and history affords no example among our countrymen of a person at his age having filled such high stations. At that age when most men plume themselves for the highest flights of ambition. Mr. Latham has successively filled the most honorable positions within the gift of the people. To what peculiar trait of character or special qualification we must attribute his extraordinary career, it would be difficult to determine.
In social character, he is dignified without stiffness, impressive without familiarity. In business engagements other than professional, his accustomed success has followed his efforts, and he now enjoys a handsome fortune. He is now Manager of the London and San Francisco Bank, which institution flourishes under his direction. As a popular orator, he has no superior on this coast, and the result of many a political canvass in this State has been influenced by the powers of his eloquence.
We have to regret that our limited space will not permit us to give extracts from his speeches in Congress, for he spoke to almost every question of national importance that rose during that exciting period; as they would adorn these pages, and carry with them proofs of the genius and ability of their author.
As a representative man, Mr. Latham is a fair type of California, her people, genius, and extraordinary expansion. As she, without the preliminary forms of territorial existence, sprang almost immediately into the condition of a great State, so did he seem to defy the ordeal of probation through which mankind usually pass in the vicissitudes of fortune, and stepped forth from his minority into a manhood of established fame.
"Palmam qui meruit ferat."
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 609-614.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.