Francis Newlands: A Force of Political Change in Nevada

From 1864 to 1888, the Democrats only won the state of Nevada once, in the close contest between James A. Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock. With the exception of the one-termer James G. Fair, all their senators had been Republicans, with the most important being John P. Jones and William M. Stewart. However, in 1892 the new Populist Party won a resounding victory in the state, as the state’s interests were naturally with silver given the many silver mines in the state. The winner of the election for Nevada’s sole House district that year was former Republican Francis Newlands (1846-1917) of the newly created Silver Party, who trounced former Republican Congressman William Woodburn about as badly as James Weaver trounced Benjamin Harrison in the state.

Newlands was a lawyer by profession, having earned a law degree at Columbian College (now George Washington University) and moved to San Francisco, California, in 1870. There, he quickly became a success and in 1874 married Clara Sharon, the daughter of mining magnate (and future senator) William Sharon. Newlands helped Sharon run his business enterprises, including the Bank of California and the Palace Hotel. After Clara died after giving birth to their fourth child in 1882, Newlands inherited the Sharon estate. However, he had to move himself and his family to Reno, Nevada after Sharon’s 1885 death to protect it from a divorce lawsuit from Sharon’s mentally unstable former mistress, Sarah Althea Hill, who claimed that they had been married in secret. A story about that tempestuous woman will be one for a different post.

Newlands proved a popular representative and as a member of the Nevada-centric Silver Party would be a tireless advocate for bimetallism and against the adoption of the gold standard. He would support William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896 and was joined in the Silver Party by Senators John P. Jones and William M. Stewart, who had left the Republican Party over its full embrace of the gold standard. Newlands would be reelected time and again. Although he was often opposed to the McKinley Administration, in 1898 he sponsored the Newlands Resolution, which annexed Hawaii. Republicans overwhelmingly supported annexation and it was signed into law by President McKinley. Newlands was also a major supporter of funding irrigation projects, and succeeded in getting his bill, the Newlands Reclamation Act, which established the Bureau of Reclamation, signed into law. Although Senators Jones and Stewart returned to the Republican Party after 1900, Newlands changed affiliation to Democrat. In 1902, Senator John P. Jones let it be known that he was not going to be running for another term after thirty years of service. Newlands took the opportunity to run for the seat and won.

As a senator, Newlands was mostly progressive in his record. He asserted in 1905 that the United States had neglected domestic reform in favor of imperialism, stating, “During the past eight years of continuous international acquisition, we have found the nation drifting into aggression, in strong contrast with the traditions of the Republic and the peaceful intentions of our people at the commencement of this new era. During these eight years, we have almost neglected domestic legislation. Whilst we have been engaged in conquering other countries, monopoly has conquered our own; and, under the leadership of a President whose policy upon all matters of domestic reform is meeting with such general approval, we are endeavoring to recover for our own people the ground which we have lost whilst our eyes have been strained towards the horizon of imperial grandeur” (Newlands, 1905, 887-888). Newlands was also a strong supporter of conservation and backed President Roosevelt in his setting aside lands for national parks. In 1913, he sponsored the Newlands Labor Act, which created the Board of Mediation and Conciliation to address railroad strikes.

Investigating the Titanic

News of the sinking of the Titanic had reached the United States before the surviving passengers had reached the shores of the United States, and the Senate prepared for their arrival. As soon as the surviving passengers of the Titanic had arrived on the Carpathia in New York City on April 18th, 1912, they were met by Newlands, Senator William A. Smith (R-Mich.), and other officials to serve White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay and surviving officers and crew subpoenas to testify at a Senate inquiry at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ismay testified the following morning. Newlands was part of the committee, headed by Senator Smith, investigating the Titanic sinking. The inquiry of this committee produced reforms in international maritime safety, including the creation of the International Ice Patrol.

Newlands and Racism

Francis Newlands was quite racist, even in his day. He had been born in antebellum Natchez, Mississippi in 1846, and despite being raised in Illinois and Washington D.C., the politics of the region of his birth remained in him. This was even present in one of his achievements, the development of the Chevy Chase neighborhood. Starting in the late 1880s he and a group of investors purchased tracts of farmland with the intention of developing it into a neighborhood. While there wasn’t technically a racial prohibition attached there was a minimum cost for people to build a home in the neighborhood which made it unlikely that blacks would be able to buy real estate there, and they didn’t. Blacks, Jews, and immigrants were not welcome to go to the neighborhood’s streetcar line or its amusement park (Flanagan). He also advocated the repeal of the 15th Amendment and supported a “whites only” immigration policy. Ironically, it was Nevada Senator William M. Stewart, who founded Chevy Chase with Newlands, who drafted the 15th Amendment.

On a “whites only” policy, Newlands stated, “Our country, by law to take effect upon the expiration of existing treaties, should prevent the immigration of all peoples other than those of the white race, except under restricted conditions relating to international commerce, travel, and education” (Newlands, 1909, 51). If he had at any time in his past as a Republican held favorable views to blacks, they seem to have been a distant memory. In his article, “A Western View of the Race Question”, he writes “As to the black race we have already drifted into a condition which seriously suggests the limitation of the political rights heretofore, perhaps mistakenly, granted them, the inauguration of a humane national policy which, by co-operative action by the nation and the southern states, shall recognize that blacks are a race of children, requiring guidance, industrial training, and the development of self-control, and other measures designed to reduce the danger of that race complication, formerly sectional, but now rapidly becoming national” (Newlands, 1909, 49). He also was against the acquisition of San Domingo because he feared that next would come Haiti. Newlands stated regarding acquiring Haiti that it would mean “…the addition of over a million of blacks to our population. The race problem now before us is, surely, sufficiently difficult” (Newlands, 1905, 890). Newlands believed that there was no way to create a racially peaceful society that was diverse without interracial relationships, which he of course was against. He stated, “History teaches us that it is impossible to make a homogenous people by the juxtaposition upon the same soil of races differing in color. Race tolerance, under such conditions, means race amalgamation, which is undesirable” (Newlands, 50).

Newlands and the Wilson Years

Francis Newlands, while a supporter of Wilson, was one of the less progressive Democrats during the Wilson Administration, and in 1916 he was the only Democrat to vote against the confirmation of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. That year, he continued his work for conservation by sponsoring legislation creating the National Forest Service. Newlands supported American entry into World War I by pairing in favor of the resolution declaring war on Germany. He died of a heart attack in his Washington D.C. home on December 24, 1917.


The ascendency of Newlands in Nevada represents a rise of the Democratic Party on the national level. Although the state itself elected Democratic governors quite a few times before Newlands was elected to Congress, he was the first Democrat to be reelected to the Senate from the state, and others followed in his path, particularly Key Pittman, who would serve from 1913 to 1940. Newlands was a politician who had numerous legislative accomplishments, but his record on racial issues has attracted some recent negative attention. Places named after him have been subject to calls for renaming, including Newlands Park in Reno and a fountain in the Chevy Chase neighborhood given his advocacy for the repeal of the 15th Amendment and his support for “whites only” immigration policy. I think we ought to base whether names, memorials, or monuments should be kept with consideration as to what they are meant to celebrate and not assume that they are meant to celebrate the entirety of the person. Otherwise, every historic figure is potentially up for removal since as humans even the greatest among us are not free of faults.


Flanagan, N. (2017, November 2). The Battle of Fort Reno. Washington City Paper.

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Newlands, F.G. (1909, July-December). A Western View of the Race Question. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 34 (2), pp. 49-51.

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Newlands, F.G. (1905, June). The San Domingo Question. The North American Review, 180 (583), pp. 885-898.

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Senate Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on the “Titanic” Disaster. U.S. Senate.

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Senator Newlands Dies Suddenly of Heart Attack. (1917, December 25). The San Francisco Examiner.

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One thought on “Francis Newlands: A Force of Political Change in Nevada

  1. How Did Newlands Pave The Way For People Like Pat McCarran & Walter Baring? What Is The Tradition Here? Seems Fascinating… Nevada N North Dakota Are Rather Unique Politically. McCarran Served With Nye & Langer! Those Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear, Dave IN TEXAS.

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