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One Hundred Fifty Years

Battle Born

October 31 is a big day in Nevada, and not just because it’s Halloween. That’s the day Nevada became a state. Our 150 th birthday seems like a good time for us to remind you of why Nevada became a state.

The myth is that Abraham Lincoln wanted our silver to help finance the Civil War, and feared Nevada would join the Confederacy. First, a lot of that myth comes from an episode of Bonanza—seriously. Also, Lincoln already HAD our silver. Nevada was a federal territory. If anything, Lincoln would have had more control over our finances if Nevada had NOT become a state.

There’s also the claim that Nevada legally shouldn’t have become a state. Under federal law, a territory was supposed to have a population of sixty thousand before it could become a state. But Oregon had just been admitted to the Union with fewer people than that. Lincoln had just allowed West Virginia to become a state without the usual formalities—it had seceded from Virginia. So, some rules could be bent for Nevada, too.

Nevada became a state for reasons of policy and politics. Lincoln was straining every nerve to add the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution and end slavery. Doing that requires a two-thirds vote in Congress. Lincoln and his advisers knew it would be a close call and even one congressman from Nevada could make a difference. In the end, Nevada’s first representative, Henry Worthington, voted for the amendment. It passed one-nineteen to fifty-six—three votes the other way, and it fails.

Lincoln and his party also wanted support for their policies dealing with former slaves and reconstructing the South. Not that they were all united on what to do, but they expected that senators from the new state of Nevada would vote with the party that made statehood possible. When William Stewart and James Nye got to Washington, they were loyal Republicans.

Then there’s Lincoln’s reelection. Historians have debated whether this really mattered to Lincoln. Consider that Lincoln was trying to become the first president since Andrew Jackson in 1832 to win a second term. Consider that in 1832, Lincoln first ran for office … and had run for office or campaigned almost constantly since then. So, on October 13, 1864, Lincoln listed the states and their votes in the pending election. He calculated that he would be reelected over his Democratic opponent, George McClellan … one-seventeen to one-fourteen. That was very close, obviously. At the bottom, someone else added Nevada and its three votes to bring it to one-twenty.

Eighteen days later, Lincoln signed off on Nevada’s statehood. Not that it was easy. The original constitution hadn’t arrived. Secretary of State William Seward tried to persuade Lincoln to approve statehood without it. Lincoln wouldn’t. So, territorial governor James Nye sent the document by wire—the longest telegram sent up to that time, costing more than four thousand dollars, or about sixty thousand in today’s money. Lincoln gave his approval on October 31. Just over a week later, Lincoln won reelection, and his electoral college total was two-twelve to twenty-one. Good politicians always worry. Still, Lincoln got only two of Nevada’s electoral votes; the third elector was caught in the snow in Aurora.

But Nevada kept its end of the bargain. When it became a state on October 31, it was a treat for Lincoln and the Union—not a trick.