Why Nevada, Home of Cliven Bundy, Abolished Slavery Twice

The rancher wonders whether blacks were better off under slavery. The Silver State's founders had no such doubts.
A sign erected in support of rancher Cliven Bundy and his family near Bunkerville, Nevada, that reads "This is about civil rights." (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Cliven Bundy, the controversial Nevada rancher resisting a federal court order alongside armed members of the militia movement, shared his unorthodox perspective on race relations and American slavery with The New York Times earlier this week:

"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids—and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.

"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."

"Slavery is torture as a system of governance, corporal destruction taken as the mere cost of doing business," my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this morning in his assessment of Bundy's remarks. I noted earlier, when the standoff began, that the state's unique constitutional history contradicts Bundy's claims of a sovereign, anti-federal Nevada. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nevada's history runs contrary to his views on slavery too. The state was so anti-slavery at its inception that it actually banned the practice twice.

Congress authorized the Nevada Territory to draft a state constitution in May 1864, one month after the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment. As a precondition to statehood, the act also required Nevada to enact "by an ordinance irrevocable" a permanent renunciation of all unappropriated public lands—which would help fuel Bundy's ostensible grievances 150 years later—and the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln and other Republican leaders hoped Nevada statehood would provide additional votes to pass the federal constitutional amendment and secure his reelection.

Slavery had never existed within Nevada's borders, nor would it likely ever take root in the desert climate and mountainous terrain. But the convention dutifully passed the ordinances when it gathered in July 1864, then set about framing the rest of the constitution. Their draft, which had been written at an unofficial convention in 1863, also abolished slavery in its Declaration of Rights. As they went through, clause by clause, the delegates wondered: Should Nevada abolish slavery a second time?

"I do not see the necessity of having the same matter in two distinct portions of the constitution," one delegate commented. "Now, I am in favor of the proposition which this section embodies," stated another, "but I do not want it repeated ... since it has the same binding force in that ordinance as it would have if found in any other part of our fundamental law."

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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