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November 1867
The Senator and his Secretary

Twain (Senate Historical Office)

The California gold rush of 1849 and the 1859 discovery of silver and gold in Nevada’s Comstock Lode drew to those regions individuals from the East and Midwest who would eventually represent California and Nevada in the U.S. Senate.

Of the nine Nevada senators who served during the half-century following their state’s 1864 admission to the Union, eight had previously settled in California and all had gotten their start in mining, banking, or real estate.

New York-born attorney William Stewart followed a career path common to his other Nevada colleagues. He arrived in California in 1850, engaged in gold mining, studied the complexities of mining law, and became California’s attorney general. Following discovery of the Comstock Lode, Stewart moved from San Francisco to Nevada’s Virginia City. In private practice, his "win at any cost" attitude and sharp legal skills made him popular with his mining company clients and earned him a fortune in fees. He helped to draft Nevada’s constitution in 1864 and won a seat in the most important public office for a developing 19th-century western state—the U.S. Senate. Throughout Stewart’s career, which included 28 years in the Senate, he excelled in shaping a confusing welter of local mining regulations into state and federal law.

In 1867, Senator Stewart hired the brother of a Nevada official as his personal secretary. In those days, senators had no Capitol Hill offices and they paid staff from personal funds. The new staffer, a down-on-his-luck character known as Mark Twain, needed a salary and a place to finish writing his first book. Twain moved into Stewart’s downtown boardinghouse. As he struggled to finish Innocents Abroad, he also answered constituent correspondence.

Twain’s Senate-staff tenure was brief. He upset the senator’s landlady by smoking his malodorous cigars in bed; he forged the senator’s frank on personal letters; and he responded to constituent mail with characteristic irreverence.

When a constituent wrote to ask for legislation to incorporate the Episcopal Church in Nevada, Senator Stewart told Twain to advise the writer that this was a matter for the state legislature. Here is what Twain wrote on the senator’s behalf. "You will have to go to the state legislature about this little speculation of yours. Congress doesn’t know anything about religion. . . . This thing you propose to do out in that new country isn’t expedient—in fact, it is simply ridiculous. You religious people there are too feeble, in intellect, in morality, in piety—in everything pretty much. You had better drop this—you can’t make it work. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves—that is what I think about it."


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