REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
WILLIAM MORRIS STEWART
MR. STEWART was born in the State of New York, in the year 1827. He is the oldest son of a numerous family of brothers and sisters. His parents are native born Americans, of remote English or Scotch ancestry. During the War of 1812, his father enlisted as a volunteer from the State of New York, serving during a portion of the war, and until honorably discharged. He is now a pensioner of the government, and in the enjoyment of faculties still unimpaired by the ravages of time.
In early youth, Mr. Stewart worked upon his father's farm, his ordinary avocations and everyday life being little different from that of other boys under similar circumstances. An ardent desire for the acquisition of knowledge was one of his leading characteristics, and for the accomplishment of this end, all his spare time was employed in the study of such books as could be procured in the neighborhood of his home.
After passing through the usual routine of work and study, (at a time when public schools were neither so numerous or so thorough as now) Mr. Stewart, by combining his own earnings with judicious pecuniary assistance furnished by friends who took an interest in his progress, was enabled to enter Yale College as a regular student. At this seat of learning he remained for about three years, managing in that time, by close study, to master a course which generally occupied a longer period. Mathematics was his favorite pursuit, and in this branch he acquired such extraordinary proficiency that his assistance was required in the preparation of a mathematical work upon which one of the professors was at that time employed. His Alma Mater afterwards conferred upon him an honorary degree, in recognition of his early diligence and subsequent eminence.
When Mr. Stewart left Yale College, the excitement concerning gold discoveries in California was at its height, and he caught the contagion. After making a few necessary preparations, he started for California in 1849, arriving at San Francisco in that year, in time to take an active part in those measures which prepared the way for an admission to the Union. Mining was then the occupation to which a large part of the population were devoted, and in a short time Mr. Stewart found himself at work in the mines. He followed this pursuit for some years. Then, having determined to study law, he made application to Hon. John R. McConnell, then in the full tide of a lucrative practice at Nevada City, Cal. The enthusiasm and zeal of the young man was a sufficient earnest of that unflinching energy and close application so essential to the successful prosecution of legal studies. His personal appearance at the time of this application was anything but prepossessing: he was attired in buckskin pants, heavy boots, slouch hat, and such other garments as generally completed a miner's costume; but this rough exterior could not conceal that native hue of resolution which animated his whole appearance. Arrangements, satisfactory both to pupil and preceptor, were made, and preparations for the bar were commenced immediately. These were carried on with characteristic perseverance for the space of three months, at the end of which time he applied for admission, was subjected to a rigorous and searching examinations, was declared to be qualified, and a license to practice granted forthwith. Shortly after becoming a full-fledged attorney, he was elected a Justice of the Peace, and discharged the duties of the office without "fear, favor, or affection." Though the questions that came before this petty tribunal were generally unimportant, they were always decided on principle; and the correctness of these decisions is evidenced from the fact that they were rarely reversed on appeal.
After serving one term as a Justice, the ambition for more exalted fields of labor, together with an aptitude for business which had already been exhibited, led to the formation of a partnership between Mr. Stewart and his old preceptor. During a portion of the time which this partnership lasted, Mr. McConnell held the office of Attorney General of the State, and being at one time compelled to be absent, he selected his partner to fill his place until his return.
For the successful conduct of important criminal cases before the highest judicial tribunal of the State, and for the preparation of sound legal opinions upon mooted constitutional questions, no mean order of ability is required. It is therefore no small tribute to say that he performed his duties in a manner such as to meet with the universal approval of the people, and to add increased lustre to a rapidly advancing reputation. At about this time, Mr. Stewart was married to the third daughter of Gov. Henry S. Foote, of Mississippi, and shortly after this event the partnership between Mr. McConnell and himself was dissolved by regular limitation of time.
Mr. Stewart then commenced to practice for himself. That there is always room at the top of the ladder of fame; however much its approaches may be crowded, was with him an appreciated maxim, and it is no matter of wonderment that we see him disputing the place for precedence with older and more experienced practitioners. Force of will, celerity of action, indomitable perseverance, strict integrity, and a restless energy that could never be quieted, are qualities which Mr. Stewart possessed, and it was these attributes which enabled him to take a high place at the bar, even at the very onset of his career—a place which he always maintained, never losing an inch of ground once gained, but steadily pushing forward towards the very front ranks of the profession. At this time business was becoming somewhat stagnant at Nevada City; many important mining suits had been settled; and but few real estate cases of any magnitude were likely to arise in a country where titles were unclouded and local resources were but beginning to be developed. Hence a better location was to be found, and Downieville, Sierra county, was the chosen place. A removal was accordingly effected in the year 1857.
Here, among comparative strangers, the struggle for professional advancement and its unfailing emoluments was renewed with unabated vigor. Immediate employment on one side or the other of every important case, a high reputation for professional skill, and a leading position at what was then a very able bar, are indicative of his standing at this time; but Downieville soon shared the fate of other mining towns, and settled down from a state of undue excitement to a condition of comparative quietude; it was no longer the place for an active, enterprising, and rising young man.
Fortunately at this juncture (1859) the discovery of extensive silver mines at Washoe afforded just the opportunity for a man of Stewart's composition to reap riches and renown in an almost incredibly short space of time. It did not take long to decide so vital a question, and a second removal was effected with commendable promptitude. This move was made just in time to meet the flood of immigration which shortly after began to flow towards the region hitherto regarded as a mere barren waste, but now believed to teem with exhaustless mineral wealth. From the confusion which ensued, sprung endless litigation. Disputed boundaries, priority of locations, non-compliance with legal forms, the mutual rights of holders of adjacent claims— these and kindred questions were the fruitful parents of numberless law-suits. This was just the location for a man possessed of great fertility of resources and willing to encounter any obstacles, which were generally surmounted by the pertinacity with which they were met. Here was a battle-field where new and untried expedients were more likely to eventuate in success than a strict compliance with long established precedents; where celerity of movement was of more effect than regular approaches; where Napoleonie genius falsified all military maxims. There were few presedents for information of lawyers or the guidance of the bench. Some of the questions which arose were novel, and many of them very intricate. Some had never before arisen, and others had been passed over without definite decision. There was no reasoning upon such cases from analogy; they must be decided each upon its own individual merits and the circumstances under which it arose. Difference of situation led to conflicting decisions. From chaos must be educed a system of order; from a confused mass of decisions, evidence, and opinions, must be formed a steady and unvarying rule of law.
It is no flattery to Mr. Stewart, still less is it an injustice to his compeers, to say that he contributed as much towards this result—towards forming a correct system of jurisprudence for the State of Nevada—as any one lawyer within the borders of the State. An extensive practice necessarily made him acquainted with all important points which arose. The "one ledge theory," a mixture of law and geology, was a proposition advanced by him, and demonstrated in many instances.
Mr. Stewart never argued a case without preparation: by conversing with witnesses, and a careful examination of authorities, he made himself familiar with every issue which could by possibility arise, so as never to be taken at a disadvantage. An anecdote related by Dr. Merritt of Oakland, in Mr. Stewart's presence, is illustrative of his character. The Doctor was in Virginia City attending to some legal matters, and was recommended to consult with Mr. Stewart before commencing suit. The parties were introduced, whereupon Mr. Stewart said, "Well, Doctor, state your case." The Doctor then commenced, but had not proceeded far when he was interrupted with the inquiry, "Have you a witness to prove that fact? An affirmative answer, and the Doctor went on with the statement, but was frequently interrupted during the course of his narrative with the same interrogatory. At length the conclusion was approaching, when Dr. Merritt stated a fact upon the proof of which the whole case hinged, when Stewart again asked, "Have you a witness to prove that fact? "No." "Then you must go right out and get one." This anecdote, although probably overdrawn as to the mendacity of witnesses or the readiness of lawyers to use perjured testimony, is yet strikingly illustrative of that determination never to go to trial with the risk of a surprise, and consequent discomfiture.
When a case was ready for court it was conducted towards its conclusion with the same assiduous zeal which marked its preparation. Truth was drawn from the lips of an unwilling or an interested witness, more by force of will and an accurate knowledge of human nature, than by subtle rules of logic or a confusing mode of examination.
As a forensic speaker, Mr. Stewart is a man of marked ability. He argues a case closely, never leaving the main point for the sake of saying a fine thing. His speeches, considered merely as compositions, are not calculated to impress one with the ability of the speaker. They are clear, methodical, almost entirely devoid of ornament, especially that of a meretricious character, but yet they are forcible and convincing, addressed to the understanding rather than to the imagination of his auditors. When occasion requires a display of rhetorical skill or oratorical powers, his speeches differ from a mere juridical argument. In summing up his character as a lawyer, we may truthfully say that he is an eminent one, especially in that department—mining law—to which his attention has been most closely directed.
At this period of his life (1860, '61, '62) he was eminently successful. Business poured in upon him to such an extent that he was frequently compelled to refuse important suits. Up to this time, he had taken but little part in politics, preferring the pursuit of a practice which yielded an enormous revenue, and a plenitude of renown. But a lawyer in esse is a politician in posse; good lawyers generally expect to go to Congress; Stewart was no exception to the rule; yet his transposition from the bar to the Senate chamber was due as much to the desire of the people to employ trained ability, as to his own ambition for political preferment.
For the reasons before enumerated, he was elected one of the Senators from Nevada, at the first meeting of the Legislature for the ratification of the constitution, a position to which he was reëlected in 1869. That energy and activity which wins for its possessor a place in the front rank of advocates in a mining State, is duly appreciated in Congress, where industry is a commodity valued in proportion to its scarcity.
Prior to the war, and indeed ever since Mr. Stewart attained his majority, he had been a Democrat, in full affiliation with the leaders of the party, and an earnest advocate of its leading doctrines. He voted for Breckinridge in 1860.
After Mr. Lincoln's election, when all chances for a peaceful settlement had vanished, and an adjustment of sectional differences could only be effected through the arbitrament of the sword. Mr. Stewart, unhesitatingly severed his connection with his old political associates, and allied his fortunes with those who were for a vigorous prosecution of the war. Nevada was admitted to the Union during the days when the storm of war raged fiercest; when the cries of those who sought for peace were drowned in the general uproar for war, and it is not strange, therefore, that she sent men whose "voices were for war" to represent her in the national councils. Gov. Nye and Mr. Stewart, both uncompromising Union men, were elected at the first meeting, and were both retained for a second term of office.
Since Senator Stewart's entrance into political life, his course is known to the whole country. Before the conclusion of the war, there was but little opportunity for a new-comer to display his abilities, as the plan of offensive operations had been determined upon, and was undeviatingly pursued. With the close of the contest, affairs were changed, and an opportunity for distinction was open, such as is seldom offered. A new system of tactics was to be followed; the relations of the States had been suspended, but not entirely dissolved; to heal animosities engendered by a long and bloody war; to reëstablish the authority of the general government, without unnecessary harshness to the Southern States; to restore harmony and good feeling between the two sections by the enactment of enlightened laws; to fix the political status of the emancipated negroes; to temper justice with mercy, and angry passions with a leaven of magnanimity, required qualities which go far towards forming high-minded statesmanship. At this conjuncture, Senator Stewart offered his "Universal Amnesty and Universal Suffrage" resolutions, which he vigorously supported with his voice and vote. There can be little question but that if those resolutions had been adopted the vexed question would have been speedily and definitely settled. The fate of these resolutions is Senator Stewart maintained close personal relations with President Johnson, and gave an undivided support to the leading measures of his administration. Unfortunately for the whole country, a humane and magnanimous policy did not prevail, and harsher measures were decided upon.
Senator Stewart was elected as a Republican at a time when sectional hostility was at its height; but since his entrance into the halls of Congress, had not advocated extreme measures, and hence could not in strictness be termed a "Radical." But party lines were closely drawn, and a choice must be made. Senator Stewart readily gave his adherence to measures introduced by Republicans, though they were somewhat in conflict with former expressed opinions. This partial change of opinion arose from two causes: a conviction of previous error, and a belief that more extreme measures were necessary for the salutary treatment of the reconstruction question. He has since given his undivided support to those Congressional enactments known as the "Reconstruction Acts," commencing with the "Civil Rights Bill," and ending, for the present, with the "Fifteenth Amendment." Of this latter document, upon which he had been exhausted the language of panegyric or invective, according to the political tenets of the commentators, Senator Stewart is, we believe, the author; and however much it may be decried as a public measure, no one can fail to admire the simplicity of a document which accomplishes, within the compass of two lines, a purpose which has been advocated by able partizans ever since the formation of the government. It is the concentrated essence of the doctrines of the original abolitionists and emancipationists.
Mr. Stewart, though before known as a moderate Republican, was an advocate of the impeachment of President Johnson, and worked and voted with the thirty-five senators who declared the President guilty as charged. He was never classed as one of those whose vote was in the least degree doubtful. He possessed the confidence of his associates, as is evidenced from the fact of his appointment upon the "Judiciary" and other important Congressional committee.
But whilst devoting so much time to national affairs, he has not neglected matters of moment to the people of this coast. The Pacific railroad has at all times received a large share of his attention, and he has contributed every thing in his power to the completion of an enterprise of so much importance to the people of this section of the Union. Other lines of railroad have also derived benefit from his efforts, for it is but recently that he has contributed a large share of his time towards the completion of a plan for a railroad through the San Joaquin Valley.
Every measure having for its object the development of the mining regions, lessening the hardship of the inhabitants, or contributing to their greater security and comfort, has met with his hearty support. The establishment of complete postal facilities, those great civilizers, has been an object of especial care. He was an early and earnest advocate of Chinese immigration.
In Congress, Mr. Stewart is looked upon as an able and efficient member. His speeches are marked more by force than fire; like his forensic efforts, they are almost entirely devoid of ornament, reaching conclusions less by artificial refinements of logic, than concise arrangement, and simple brevity of statement.
In personal appearance, Senator Stewart is rather a striking looking personage: he is considerably over six feet in height, and rather stout, without being inclined to corpulency. He has light hair, a clear, blue eye, and a long, flowing beard. He is just approaching middle age, and in the full enjoyment of vigorous manhood. Socially, Mr. Stewart is pleasant and affable, without being familiar; dresses plainly, without ostentation or show, holding himself aloof from no one, however humble his condition may be. He has implicit confidence in those by whom he is surrounded, and this trait has more than once been the cause of unfriendly impositions.
Taking success as a criterion of merit—a generally accepted rule—we can safely pronounce Senator Stewart a great man. The writer of this hasty sketch is aware of the fact that there is but a slight line of demarcation between the office of a truthful biographer and that of a mere servile adulator. Looking from the standpoint of justice, however, and free from political or personal bias, he has endeavored to do simple justice to a personage with whose public acts the people are already familiar.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 635-644.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.