Happy Birthday Governor Latham!

Milton Slocum Latham, California’s sixth governor, was born in Columbus, Ohio on May 23, 1827.

He continues to hold the record for shortest term as California’s chief executive:

Five days.

From January 9, 1860 to January 14, 1860.

During his brief tenure, he sent President Buchanan a letter supporting the desire of six southern counties to split from California and form a new, more slavery-friendly territory.

Latham also gave an inaugural speech, suspended a sentence, approved the commissions for several notaries, appointed two port wardens, a few port commissioners in San Francisco and signed three Senate and two Assembly bills, one of which gave Sacramento’s sheriff more time to collect delinquent taxes and the other appropriating money to furnish the Governor’s office.

The “suave and genial” Democrat abandoned the governship after the Legislature selected him to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant since the previous fall by the death of San Francisco’s David Broderick in a duel with former state Supreme Court Justice David Terry.

When Broderick’s term ended in 1863, California’s Republican Legislature declined to give Latham an additional six years.

“The new mark of confidence vouchsafed me, so soon after the solemn occasion of my entering upon the high office I now resign, has deeply impressed me, and I feel that the only adequate acknowledgment I can proffer, is an earnest endeavor to be worthy of so exalted a distinction,” Latham wrote the Legislature two days after being sworn into office and delivering his inaugural speech.

“I accept the new position, so honorable in its character and vacate the Executive Chair, without hesitation, at the bidding of the state, firmly believing that I can serve her more effectually in the National Council than elsewhere.

“The known capacity and integrity of character of my constitutional successor, and my firm reliance upon the wisdom and patriotism of the present Legislature, suffice to relieve any anxiety I might otherwise experience in taking so important a step.”

He was 32 years old.

Perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, Latham said he felt uncomfortable mapping out an agenda in his inaugural speech.

“It would be a better custom, upon the termination of an official career, for an officer to point his constituency to his several completed acts, rather than, in the assumption of office, to promise what may not be consummated.”

Like his immediate predecessors, John Bigler and John Weller, Latham’s chief focus was to reduce California’s debt. 

“In our past history, a morbid desire to experiment has given rise, more than any other one cause, to the debt with which we now find the state burdened, amounting to $3,885,000.

“Compared with our resources, this sum may be regarded as small; yet, we look in vain for some evidence justifying its creation, having no pubic buildings and but one charitable institution—an Insane Asylum—to point to as evidence of its being incurred for the state’s benefit,” Latham said.

And, sounding like any number of his successors, Republican and Democrat alike:

“The receipts of government should always be equal to, and—if possible, without oppressive taxation—greater, than the expenditures. Schemes of public improvements, however desirable they may appear, should never justify a variance from this rule, which should be stern and inflexible.”

Latham was a Lecompton Democrat, the wing of the Democratic Party that supported the pro-slavery Kansas Lecompton Constitution, named after the territorial capital.

Anti-Lecompton Democrats were opposed to any expansion of slavery. Previously, that faction of the party – of which Bigler was a member — were Free Soilers. The Lecomptons had called themselves Chivalrists.

In 1853, the Chivalrists sought to break Southern California off into a separate territory that would allow slavery.

Bigler, seeking a second-term, and Broderick –then a state senator — opposed the split and successfully defeated it.

California’s U.S. Senator William Gwin headed the party’s pro-slavery faction.

By the time Weller was elected governor in 1857, state lawmakers were on their third attempt to split the state.

The Pico Act — introduced by Assemblyman Andres Pico, a Californio who previously served as acting governor of Alta California in 1847 — proposed to create a new federally administered territory of “Colorado” comprised of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties.

This time, lawmakers approved the plan. And Weller, who had Southern leanings, signed it. Voters in the proposed new territory approved the move by over 70 percent.

It fell to Latham, the nominee of the Lecompton Democrats, to forward the proposed separation to President Buchanan for congressional approval.

Latham, a lawyer, wrote a lengthy defense of the action, which takes up seven pages in the Assembly Journal for the 1860 session.

In it, he argues that nothing in the constitution prevents California splitting in two even though only a portion of the state voted on the question.

“As to the sentiment of the people of the state at large, upon this separation I have no doubt it is very largely against it,” he writes.

Foreshadowing the coming Civil War, Latham notes in his analysis that “the doctrine of nullification and secession…is unprovided for in the federal constitution. The framers of that instrument never contemplated a quiet dissolution of the Union. They expected it to last until overturned by force.”

Latham argued that “Congress possesses only the powers granted expressly or by implication in the federal constitution while the state legislatures possess all powers not prohibited by the constitutions of the respective states.”

Congress, absorbed with other issues like Southern secession, never took up the issue.

Early Life

Latham’s ancestors came to America in the Mayflower. His father was a native of Virginia; his mother of New Hampshire.

“He was fortunate in being the son of a gentleman of eminent local celebrity, and a person of liberal education and a generous nature,” according to 1870’s Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific, edited by Oscar Tully Shuck.

A classics major at Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, Latham graduated in 1845 and moved to Russell County, Alabama where he studied law and taught school.

From 1848 until 1850, when gold fever grabbed him, he was a circuit court clerk.

He moved to San Francisco and worked as a recording clerk then relocated to Sacramento where he was elected district attorney.

In 1852, he won a seat in Congress, serving for only one term.

A priority for him in Washington was improved overland mail service – a theme he reiterated in his inaugural speech. He also pitched creation of a steamship mail service to Asia.

While in the House, he married Sophie Birdsall, nicknamed the “Belle of the Prairie” and a fixture in Sacramento society.

(Presumably, she holds the record for shortest tenure as a California First Lady.)  

Another candidate was nominated along with Latham in 1854 and he elected to return to his law practice.

The following year he was named collector for the port of San Francisco by President Franklin Pierce. Latham and Pierce became friends.

After the Civil War began, both Latham, then a senator, and Pierce opposed secession but were critical of several Lincoln administration policies.

Pierce was critical enough that he received a letter on Christmas Eve 1861 from Secretary of State William Seward containing an anonymous accusation that Pierce had helped an anti-war organization known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.

“A secret league the object of which [was] to overthrow the government,” Seward said.

An outraged Pierce fired back a letter to Seward who apologized but Pierce continued to complain about the accusation to his Democratic friends, Latham among them.

When the charge found its way into the press in March 1862, Pierce wrote and asked Latham to introduce a resolution seeking Congressional investigation of the allegations.

They were determined to be a hoax.

As port collector, Latham tried to steer clear of the inter-party battle between Broderick and Gwin for the US Senate in 1857. After cutting a deal with Broderick, Gwin won.

After two years in the job, Latham decided to quit “the filthy pool of politics,” Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific, quotes him as saying.

Two years later, the Lecomptons turned to Latham – over Weller, the incumbent – as their gubernatorial candidate.

Latham received over 44,000 votes almost 20,000 more than his nearest rival, John Curry, the Anti-Lecompton Democrat.

He trounced the candidate of the nascent Republican Party, Leland Stanford, who received less than 8,500 votes.

When seated in March 1860, Latham became the youngest member of the US Senate. 

Senator Latham

In 1860, Latham supported Kentuckian John Breckinridge, Buchanan’s vice president, for president.

Breckinridge was the candidate of the Southern Democrats who split over the protection of slavery in the territories. He returned to the US Senate after the election before ultimately joining the Confederacy. He was also the cousin of the new president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Latham's Rincon Hill Mansion

Latham’s first public words about the prospect of Southern secession came on February 1, 1861 in a speech given one month before Lincoln was sworn in.

The speech came on the eve of a peace conference instigated by the state of Virginia which believed – rightly – it would suffer if war broke out.

The conference, held at Washington’s Willard Hotel, began three days after Latham’s conciliatory speech on the Senate floor.

Obviously, its efforts were unsuccessful.

“Let me say to the South, that great as may have been their provocations, they have as yet no right to suppose that remaining in the Union dooms them a hopeless prey to northern fanaticism,” Latham told his colleagues in a 13-page speech.

“If we are to heal the breach which now seems almost inevitable and lasting between the North and the South, the remedy must be applied at once. Family quarrels must be made up quickly, er they become chronic, and exceed in virulence and rancor disputes among strangers. Let those who think there is no danger, that affairs will quietly settle themselves, take warning, less supineness lead them into fatal and irreparable error.

“If we continue here our present stubborn course, there is nothing to be hoped but final dissolution, civil war, the breaking up of the whole country into petty Republics, breathing defiance at each other, without retaining either weight or consideration in the affairs of the world.

“Our sovereign people are not prepared for this. They neither desire, nor, if you give them an opportunity, will they permit it.

“We have neither become so powerful nor so rich that we can amuse ourselves by making war upon each other. The three essential things required for war, said a great general, are ‘first, money; then a great deal more money; and finally, all the money that can possibly be raised.’ War once declared and waged, all hopes of reconciliation, I repeat again, are at an end.”

By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March, seven states had seceded. Another four followed upon his taking office.

Latham supported efforts to restore the Union but believed states and territories should be allowed to continue slavery.

In a July 20, 1861 Senate speech, Latham quotes a resolution unanimously adopted by the state of New Hampshire that says the war should be viewed as “not a sectional war, not an anti-slavery war, nor a war of conquest and subjugation
but simply and solely a war for the maintenance of the government.”

Latham then says:

“Whenever it is discovered that the purpose of this war is not to assert the principles laid down in the (resolution) I have just read, but that, under the hue and cry of loyalty to the United States, warfare is waged against the institution of slavery, to deprive the people of the southern states of the exercise of their property rights, I shall raise my voice, and by my vote put the seal of my condemnation on any such purpose.

“This I am confident is the wish of my constituency, and I am proud of it.”

In the same speech, Latham says that he only backs Lincoln when he acts solely to preserve the government. 

“So far as the violation of the writ of habeas corpus in the State of Maryland was concerned, I refuse to give (the president) my sanction for that act. I refuse it because that state has shown, by the return of her delegates to the other house, her allegiance to the government of the United States.

“And though there may be many citizens in her midst who sympathize with the disloyal spirit of the southern states, though there may have been disgraceful mobs and riots in the city of Baltimore, unless there was clear evidence that the judiciary of that state was tainted with that disloyalty and were unwilling to do their duty under the constitution in acting upon these writs of habeas corpus, I would not justify any officer in the suspension of that sacred privilege.”

Latham concludes:

“Mr. President, I have detained the Senate already too long, I repeat, and conclude as I have commenced, by saying that while I have a seat upon this floor, representing a state upon the far-off Pacific, I shall support the constituted authorities in upholding the laws, supporting the government, and securing obedience to its behests, in the constant and fervent hope that, with as little bloodshed as possible, with as little force as possible, these people may return to their allegiance and their duty to our government.”

As a senator, Latham was also a strong advocate for the transcontinental railroad, which provided profitable for him after he left office.

The Rincon Hill Library

Speaking of the states and territories on the West Coast, Latham asks his fellow senators in a June 12, 1862 floor speech:

“Are these vast interests, in distant localities of the Union, to languish and struggle simply because 2,000 miles intervene between them and your great Mississippi Valley?

“Is this great interior region still to be traveled the usual laborious way, subjecting the voyager to so many perils, simply for the want of adequate facilities? Have we not a claim to the benefits due by a government, the theory of which is to confer equal blessings, within its constitutional range, upon every portion of our widespread territory?”

By 1863, members of Lincoln’s Republican Party held both California’s governorship and a majority in the Legislature.

Latham was denied a second Senate term, replaced by former Anti-Lecompton Democrat turned Republican, John Conness, who carried the bill – signed by Lincoln in 1864 — creating Yosemite National Park.

After Politics

Latham and Sophie traveled throughout Europe for the remainder of the war.

While aboard, Latham finalized a deal to manage the London and San Francisco Bank Ltd.’s San Francisco office located at 412 Montgomery between California and Sacramento streets.

The bank, popularly known as “Latham’s Bank” proved lucrative. Latham built a mansion at 636 Folsom between 2nd and 3rd streets.

Latham and his neighbor, shipping baron John Parrott, objected to a plan to extend Montgomery south –through Rincon Hill — to the Potrero and Mission Bay districts. They refused to sell their properties, holding the project, which was eventually scuttled. And so Montgomery ends at Howard St.

In the Governors of California, H. Brett Melendy and Benjamin Gilbert describe Latham’s home as a “veritable mecca of culture. He imported expensive statutes and paintings and accumulated a sizeable private library of about 5,000 volumes.”

By 1867, Latham was running the California Pacific Railroad. It had a line that ran from Davis to Marysville and another from what’s now American Canyon to Calistoga.

But most lucrative was the railroad’s connection between the Central Pacific’s Sacramento terminus and Vallejo from where passengers boarded ferries to San Francisco creating a truly transcontinental railway.

Thurlow Hall

In 1867, Latham’s wife died. He married the former Mary McMullen. The couple had a son, Milton Jr.

As was the habit of other affluent San Franciscans, Latham purchased a country estate.

He did so in 1872 as a gift to his new wife.

The property, bought for $75,000, was a 40-room mansion located on 280 acres in what’s now Menlo Park, up the road apiece from the Stanford’s horse ranch. Latham named it Thurlow Lodge.

During its renovation, the home burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1873.

The following year, Carleton Watkins was commissioned to photograph the estate.

While the soundness of “Latham’s Bank” made it one of the city’s “financial bulwarks” during the financial panic of 1875 triggered by the collapse of the Bank of California.

Latham was not as lucky as his bank.

He had invested heavily in the North Pacific Coast Railroad to bring timber from the Russian River area to San Francisco via ferry from Sausalito. But a “sudden drop in the price of lumber brought disaster,” according to The Governors of California. The “M.S. Latham” locomotive, built in 1876, continued traveling the North Coast tracks until destroyed in a February 1894 wreck. 

Latham’s fortune evaporated and he sold his art collection. He moved to New York and became the head of the New York Mining and Stock Exchange in 1880.

A Thurlow Hall Mantelpiece

He died March 4, 1882 at the age of 55.

The Los Angeles Daily Herald reported on March 9 that he had suffered from Bright’s Disease for over a year.

He had seemed to recover from a brief illness, worked in his downtown office Thursday March 2 but was stricken with internal hemorrhaging the following day.

Originally buried in San Francisco, Latham and his first wife were moved and reburied in Colma in 1940.


After Latham’s death, Thurlow Lodge and its contents went to Henrietta Dwight, who held the mortgage.

She, in turn, sold the estate to robber baron Mark Hopkins’ widow, Mary.

In 1888, Hopkins gave the home to her adopted son, Timothy, as a wedding present. He and his wife summered there, renaming it Sherwood Hall.

Badly damaged by the 1906 earthquake, Hopkins shut down the house. When he died in 1936, he willed the property to Stanford University for whom he was a trustee for 51 years. He also created  the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. 

After his wife’s death in 1941, a large auction was held to sell off the contents of the old summer home. The bulk of the items as well as the building itself was bought by Universal Pictures. The furniture was used by the studio as movie props. 
The arched-paneled bed with winged griffins that graces the bedroom of the Gothic mansion above the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – and the matching wardrobe – came from Thurlow Lodge.


Filed under: California History

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