Steve Cottrell: Let’s not forget the 15th Amendment
Special to The Union
If circumstances allow for an outdoor public gathering on Aug. 20, a plaque will be dedicated at Calanan Park in Nevada City commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and the role Ellen Clark Sargent played in championing women’s rights.
The plaque will also recognize her husband, Aaron, who, as a United States Senator in 1878 introduced the exact words ratified in 1920.
To celebrate the 19th Amendment’s centennial in the town where its author once lived and worked will present a unique opportunity to promote Nevada City as it recovers from the economic impacts of COVID-19. But let’s not forget the recent sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment and its connection to local history.
The 15th Amendment, ratified Feb. 3, 1870, was also written by a Nevada City pioneer: William Morris Stewart.
Aaron Sargent and Bill Stewart arrived in Nevada City within weeks of each other in the summer of 1850. Both began as pick-and-shovel miners, became attorneys, served as Nevada County district attorney, and both later ascended to the U. S. Senate.
How Stewart came to write the 15th Amendment is a particularly interesting story, beginning with his marriage to Annie Foote — daughter of Henry Foote, a former U. S. senator and governor from Mississippi. Foote was opposed to Mississippi’s early consideration to secede from the union, so in 1854 moved his family to San Francisco. A year later, he and Stewart formed a law partnership and soon thereafter Annie became Bill’s bride.
(The beautiful Southern Colonial house at 410 Zion St. was a wedding present from Bill to Annie — a replica of her childhood home in Clinton, Mississippi).
Although Aaron and Ellen Sargent maintained a home in Nevada City for most of 20 years, Bill and Annie Stewart settled in the Utah Territory in an area that later became the Nevada Territory. And when Nevada gained statehood in 1864, Stewart was chosen one of its first two senators.
As a freshman senator, the former Nevada City miner and lawyer was assigned to the powerful Judiciary Committee, and it was there, in the fall of 1868, that he was named by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lyman Trumbull from Illinois, to create language for a post-Civil War constitutional amendment granting suffrage to black males.
Stewart’s initial language was approved by the Judiciary Committee in January 1869: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote or hold office shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
In his memoirs, Stewart noted, “I had much difficulty in getting the resolution taken up for consideration (by the full Senate), but … after days and nights of struggle and debate, the resolution passed by a two-thirds majority.”
Next, it went to a six-member Senate-House conference committee, where it met with some stiff opposition. Two committee members from the House insisted that three words be removed from Stewart’s proposed constitutional amendment: “or hold office.”
“I was willing to strike the words,” Stewart later wrote, “because I thought the right to vote carried with it the right to hold office.”
Having secured support of the conference committee, Stewart’s proposal (absent those three words) was approved by both Houses of Congress and sent to the states for ratification — where it needed support from 28 of the 37 states.
Knowing it would be a challenge to get the amendment ratified, Stewart met with President-elect Ulysses Grant, who had earlier told Stewart he supported suffrage for blacks. Grant asked what he could do to help and Stewart suggested that if he urged support in his inaugural address, adoption would soon follow.
On March 4, 1869, when Grant took the oath of office, he called ratification of the 15th Amendment “a measure of grander importance than any one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
With Grant’s strong endorsement, state Legislatures began backing the measure and 11 months later the words penned by Bill Stewart had secured the required three-fourths support from states. And 50 years later, Sargent’s 1878 words were ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment.
Yes, two constitutional amendments were written by pioneers of Nevada City. Can’t imagine any other small town — at least one west of the 13 colonies — able to make a similar claim.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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