James G. Fair: The Wealthiest Senator in American History

James Graham Fair - Brady-Handy.jpg

William Sharon, as I noted in a recent post, was a bit of a bust for Nevada. Nevada legislators naturally hoped the next guy would be a bit better, but like Sharon he would be a major figure in mining. Indeed, to get ahead in politics in Nevada it really helped to be a major figure in mining. This was the case with John P. Jones and William M. Stewart as well, the latter who was both a major mining figure and the wealthiest mining attorney in the West. However, the greatest of all the mining figures was Irish immigrant James Graham Fair (1831-1894). Elected in 1881, Fair was the first Democratic Senator from the state and had at peak a value of $61 billion in 2021 dollars from being one of the four “Silver Kings” who discovered the Big Bonanza, a massive deposit of gold and silver ore. This also made him one of the wealthiest Americans in history. You could say that he was the epitome of the Senate being regarded as a “millionaire’s club” and Nevada contributed more than its share to this reputation with him, Sharon, and Stewart.  Fair had a reputation for being “self-serving and egotistical” but was also a masterful mine superintendent, possessed boundless charm, and was shrewd in matters of business and technology (McGrath).

As a senator, Fair was an improvement over Sharon and his record was at most moderately progressive in his day, scoring a 33% on the MC-Index. He, for instance, backed regulation of railroad rates. Had Fair voted more than only 24% of the time, however, perhaps there would be a bit of a better understanding of his ideology. He didn’t participate much in the Senate as he found legislating boring and was far more interested in continuing to pursue his business interests. Indeed, Fair and Sharon were not the only people who liked to have status as an elected official much more than doing any such work: newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were both New York Democrats in the House and both had attendance rates so terrible that I could not produce an MC-Index score for either. Both were too busy with business interests to actively participate, with Hearst trying to use the House as a springboard to higher office. Fair only served a single term, 1881 to 1887.

Although his wealth was great, the same couldn’t be said for his personal life: his wife divorced him for repeated adultery in 1883 and one of his sons, James Jr., committed suicide in 1892. Fair’s health declined after a diagnosis of diabetes in 1890 and he spent his last years frequenting disreputable areas of San Francisco and drinking. He died in San Francisco on December 28, 1894 from diabetes and kidney failure.  


Fair is Gone. (1894, December 29). The Morning Call.

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Hargreaves, S. The richest Americans in history. CNN.

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McGrath, R.D. (2012). The Silver Kings. Irish America.

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