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by James Bryce


What America is to Europe, what Western America is to Eastern, that California is to the other Western States. The characteristics of a new and quickly developed colonial civilization are all strongly marked. It is thoroughly American, but most so in those points wherein the Old World differs from the New. Large fortunes are swiftly made and not less swiftly spent. Changes of public sentiment are sudden and violent. The most active minds are too much absorbed in great business enterprises to attend to politics; the inferior men are frequently reckless and irresponsible; the masses are impatient, accustomed to blame everything and everybody but themselves for the slow approach of the millennium, ready to try instant, even if perilous, remedies for a present evil.

These features belong more or less to all the newer and rougher commonwealths. Several others are peculiar to California—a State on which I dwell the more willingly because it is in many respects the most striking in the whole Union, and has more than any other the character of a great country, capable of standing alone in the world. It has immense wealth in its fertile soil as well as in its minerals and forests. Nature is nowhere more imposing nor her beauties more varied.

It grew up, after the cession by Mexico and the discovery of gold, like a gourd in the night. A great population had gathered before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wildness of that time passed into the blood of the people, and has left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with or supersessions of regular law, than are the people of most parts of the Union.

The chief occupation of the first generation of Californians was mining, an industry which is like gambling in its influence on the character, with its sudden alternations of wealth and poverty, its long hours of painful toil relieved by bouts of drinking and merriment, its life in a crowd of men who have come together from the four winds of heaven, and will scatter again as soon as some are enriched and others ruined, or the gold in the gulch is exhausted.

Moreover, mining in this region means gambling, not only in camps among the miners, but among townsfolk in the shares of the mining companies. Californians of all classes have formed the habit of buying and selling in the mining exchanges, with effects on the popular temper both in business and in politics which every one can understand. Speculation becomes a passion, patient industry is distasteful; there is bred a recklessness and turbulence in the inner life of the man which does not fail to express itself in acts.

When California was ceded to the United States, land speculators bought up large tracts under Spanish titles, and others, foreseeing the coming prosperity, subsequently acquired great domains by purchase, either from the railways which had received land grants, or directly from the Government. Some of these speculators, by holding their lands for a rise, made it difficult for immigrants to acquire small freeholds, and in some cases checked the growth of farms. Others let their land on short leases to farmers, who thus came into a comparatively precarious and often necessitous condition; others established enormous farms, in which the soil is cultivated by hired labourers, many of whom are discharged after the harvest—a phenomenon rare in the United States, which, as everybody knows, is a country of moderately-sized farms, owned by persons who do most of their labour by their own and their children’s hands. (“Latifunnia perdunt Californiam,” some one said to me in San Francisco.) Thus the land system of California presents features both peculiar and dangerous, a contrast between great properties, often appearing to conflict with the general weal, and the sometimes hard-pressed small farmer, together with a mass of unsettled labour thrown without work into the towns at certain times of the year.

Everywhere in the West the power of the railways has excited the jealousy of the people. In California, however, it has aroused hostility, because no State has been so much at the mercy of one powerful corporation. The Central Pacific Railway, whose main line extends from San Francisco to Ogden in Utah, where it meets the Union Pacific and touches the Denver and Rio Grande system, had been up till 1877, when my narrative begins—indeed it is practically still—the only route to the Mississippi valley and Atlantic (There are now two other transcontinental lines, but one of them lies far to the north, and the other belongs to the same group of men as have controlled the Central Pacific), and therefore possessed immense influence over the trade of the whole State. It was controlled by a small knot of men who had risen from insignificance to affluence, held nearly all the other railway lines in California, employed an enormous number of clerks and workmen, and made the weight of their hand felt wherever their interest was involved. Alike as capitalists, as potentates, and as men whose rise to gigantic wealth seemed due as much to the growth of the State as to their own abilities, and therefore to come under the principle which is called in England that of the “unearned increment,” they excited irritation among the farming and trading class, as well as among the labourers. As great fortunes have in America been usually won by unusual gifts, any envy they can excite is tempered by admiration for the ability shown in acquiring them. The common people felt a kind of pride in the late Mr. A. T. Stewart, and feel it now even in that flagrant “monopolist,” Mr. Jay Gould. But while these particular railway magnates were men of talent, there were also in California millionaires who had grown rich merely by lucky speculation. They displayed their wealth with a vulgar and unbecoming ostentation. They did not, as rich men nearly always do in the Atlantic States, bestow a large part of it on useful public objects. There was therefore nothing to break the wave of suspicious dislike.

Most of the Western States have been peopled by a steady influx of settlers from two or three older States. Minnesota, for instance, and Iowa have grown by the overflow of Illinois and Ohio, as well as by immigration direct from Europe. But California was filled by a sudden rush of adventurers from all parts of the world. They came mostly via Panama, for there was no transcontinental railway till 1869, and a great many came from the Southern States. This mixed multitude, bringing with it a variety of manners, customs, and ideas, formed a society more mobile and unstable, less governed by fixed beliefs and principles, than one finds in such North-western communities as I have just mentioned. Living far away from the steadying influences of the Eastern States, the Californians have developed, having done so, a sort of Pacific type, which, and are proud of though differing but slightly from the usual Western type, has less of the English element than one discovers in the American who lives on the Atlantic side of the Rocky Mountains. Add to this that California is the last place to the west before you come to Japan. That scum which the westward moving wave of emigration carries on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no farther. It accumulates in San Francisco, and forms a dangerous constituent in the population of that great and growing, city—a population perhaps more mixed than one finds anywhere else in America, for Frenchmen, Italians, Portuguese, Greeks, and the children of Australian convicts abound there, side by side with negroes, Germans, and Irish. Of the Chinese one need not speak; for, though they number some twelve thousand, have a large quarter to themselves, and have given rise to the dominant question in Pacific coast politics, they do not themselves join in any political movement, but mingle as little with the whites as oil with water.

California, more than any other part of the Union, is a country by itself, and San Francisco a capital. Cut off from the more populous parts of the Mississippi valley by an almost continuous desert of twelve hundred miles, across which the two daily trains move like ships across the ocean, separated from Oregon on the north by a wilderness of sparsely settled mountain and forest it has grown up in its own way and acquired a sort of consciousness of separate existence. San Francisco dwarfs the other cities, and is a commercial and intellectual centre, and source of influence for the surrounding regions, more powerful over them than is any Eastern city over its neighbourhood. It is a New York which has got no Boston on one side of it, and no shrewd and orderly rural population on the other, to keep it in order. Hence both State and city are less steadied by national opinion than any other State or city within the wide compass of the Union.

I am sensible of the incompleteness of the narrative which follows, and can excuse it only by the extreme difficulty of procuring adequate data. When I visited San Francisco in 1881, and again in 1883, people were unwilling to talk about the Kearney agitation, feeling, it seemed to me, rather ashamed of it, and annoyed that so much should have been made of it (more they declared than it deserved) in the Eastern States. When I asked how I could learn the facts in detail, they answered, “Only by reading through the files of the newspapers for the years 1877-80 inclusive,” a piece of work which would have taken six months. Some added that there were so many lies in the newspapers that I would not have got at the facts even then. Failing this method, I was obliged to rely on what I could pick up in conversation. I have, however, derived some assistance from a brilliant article by Mr. Henry George, who was then a resident of San Francisco, published in the New York Popular Science monthly for August l880. Although I do not adopt the conclusions to which many of his reflections seem intended to point, some of those reflections are true and forcible, deserving to be we weighed by California statesmen.

These facts in Californian history must be borne in mind in order to understand the events I am about to sketch. They show how suited is her soil to revolutionary movements. They suggest that movements natura l here are much less likely to arise in other parts of the Union.

In: Vol. II, chapter LXXXIX, The American Commonwealth, by Viscount James Bryce, MacMillan and Co., New York, 1889, second edition revised, pp 385-408.
Continue to The Sand Lot Party by Viscount Bryce

Also see: History of Chinese in San Francisco, and History of San Francisco Labor

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