The Original Sin and Sinners

Beyond the Beltway
By Michael Green

When Nevadans talk about public lands, and whether they should be federal or state public lands, they often go back to 1864 and the original Nevada Constitution, which ceded all unclaimed land in Nevada to the federal government. How did that happen?

The key phrases are in the Enabling Act of 1864 that enabled (that’s why they call it an enabling act, right?) Nevada Territory’s residents to seek statehood: “That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law. Apparently, no one questioned whether Nevada should have to give up all claims to federal lands, although they did discuss the issue of whether Nevada could tax federal lands, deciding against it.

Why this mattered brings us to politics. Two days before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, Congress had approved and President James Buchanan had signed three new territories into existence: Nebraska, Colorado, and Nevada. The legislation said nothing about slavery, which had been the issue causing dissension and eventually secession, for a very logical reason: with several southern states gone and a Republican coming into the White House, those territories were going to be governed by Republicans. And Republicans opposed the spread of slavery into the territories, so they would take care of the problem.

Three years later, only Nevada sought statehood. And Nevada succeeded, writing a constitution, getting it approved, sending it to Washington, and getting it signed by Lincoln on October 31, 1864, just in time for Nevada to vote in the presidential election. And that’s why Lincoln wanted statehood for Nevada at that point. To quote one of Nevada’s greatest and most successful politicians, former Assemblyman/State Senator/Attorney General/Governor/U.S. Senator Richard Bryan, there are two ways for a politician to run for office: unopposed or scared. Lincoln was opposed, and wanted those electoral votes. He got them, but didn’t need them, since he won big.

Thus, we come to two separate yet related issues: why did Nevada give up the claim to the land, and why did it have to do so?

Why Nevada did: Nevadans made the choice as a price of statehood. If they had chosen to retain territorial status because having so much federal land was unacceptable, they presumably would have voted accordingly, but they didn’t. The federal government listed several conditions for statehood, and this was one of them. Another was renouncing slavery, although the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had yet to come to the states for ratification (Daniel Day-Lewis hadn’t gotten it through Congress yet).

Why Nevada HAD to: Or, at least, had to if Nevadans wanted statehood. Think about why the Civil War was fought. The key issue was slavery–not simply whether it was right or wrong, or good or bad. The reasons some supported or opposed it had to do with politics, economics, legal issues, moral grounds–there are several explanations. But while southerners made clear throughout the winter of secession that they seceded over slavery, the South essentially claimed states had more power than the federal government.

How to eliminate that attitude? One way is for the federal government to be so dominant that there would be no question. And if the federal government owned the overwhelming majority of Nevada’s land, that would leave no question. Of course, Sagebrush Rebels and their supporters might disagree, as we’ll discuss in the future.