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Return to The Character of California, by Viscount James Bryce
The second edition of The American Commonwealth was on the presses when Viscount Bryce received a letter from Denis Kearney disputing some conclusions published in the first edition. Viscount Bryce allowed the labor leader the opportunity to challenge some of the author’s conclusions before final publication of the second edition. Underscored links reference the original page numbers of the second edition, and lead to Mr. Kearney’s comments.


In 1877 California was suffering from “hard times.” The severe commercial depression which began in the Eastern States in 1873, and touched the lowest point about 1876, had reached the Pacific coast, and was aggravated there by a heavy fall in mining stocks. The great Bonanza finds some years before had ushered in a period of wild speculation. Everybody gambled in stocks from railroad kings down to maidservants. Stocks had now fallen, and everybody was hard hit. The railroad kings could stand their losses, but the clerks and shop assistants and workmen suffered, for their savings were gone and many were left heavily in debt, with their houses mortgaged and no hope of redemption.

[390] Trade was bad, work was scarce, and for what there was of it the Chinese, willing to take only half the ordinary wages, competed with the white labourer. The mob of San Francisco, swelled by disappointed miners from the camps and labourers out of work, men lured from distant homes by the hope of wealth and ease in the land of gold, saw itself on the verge of starvation, while the splendid mansions of speculators, who fifteen years before had kept little shops, rose along the heights of the city, and the newspapers reported their luxurious banquets. In the country the farmers were scarcely less discontented. They too had “gone into stocks,” their farms were mortgaged, and many of them were bankrupt. They complained that the railroads crushed them by heavy freight rates, and asked why they, the bone and sinew of the country, should toil without profit, while local millionaires and wealthy Eastern bondholders drew large incomes from the traffic which the plough of the agriculturist and the pick-axe of the miner had created.

Both in the country and in the city there was disgust with politics and the politicians. The legislature was composed almost wholly either of office-seekers from the city or of petty country lawyers, needy and narrow-minded men. Those who had virtue enough not to be “got at” by the great corporations had not intelligence enough to know how to resist their devices.

It was a common saying in the State that each successive legislature was worse than its predecessor. The meeting of the representatives of the people was seen with anxiety: their departure with relief. Some opprobrious epithet was bestowed upon each. One was “the legislature of a thousand drinks”: another “the legislature of a thousand steals.” County government was little better; city government was even worse. The judges were not corrupt, but most of them, as was natural considering the scanty salaries assigned to them, were inferior men, not fit to cope with the counsel who practised before them.

Partly owing to the weakness of juries, partly to the intricacies of the law and the defects of the recently adopted code, criminal justice was halting and uncertain, and malefactors often went unpunished. It became a proverb that you might safely commit a murder if you took the advice of the best lawyers.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans bad done, or seemed likely to do, anything to remove these evils or to improve the lot of the people. They were only seeking (so men thought) places or the chance of jobs for themselves, and could always be bought by a powerful corporation. Working men must help themselves; there must be new methods and a new departure. Everything, in short, was ripe for a demagogue. Fate was kind to the Californians in sending them a demagogue of a common type, noisy and confident, but with neither political foresight nor constructive talent.

Late in 1877 a meeting was called in San Francisco to express sympathy with the men then on strike at Pittsburg in Pennsylvania.[391] Their riotous violence, which had alarmed the respectable classes all over America, had gratified the discontented railroad operatives of California, then meditating a strike of their own against a threatened reduction of wages. Some strong language used at this meeting, and exaggerated by the newspapers, frightening the business men into forming a sort of committee of public safety, with the president of the famous Vigilance Committee of 1856 [William T. Coleman], a resolute and capable man at its head. Persons enrolled by it paraded the streets with sticks for some days to prevent any attack on the Chinese, but it was soon perceived that there was no real danger, and the chief result of the incident was further irritation of the poorer classes, who perceived that the rich were afraid of them, and therefore disposed to deal harshly with them. Shortly after came an election of municipal officers and members of the State legislature.

The contest, as is the custom in America, brought into life a number of clubs and other organizations, purporting to represent various parties or sections of a party, and among others a body calling itself the “Working men’s Trade and Labour Union,” the secretary of which was a certain Denis Kearney. When the election was over, Kearney declared that he would keep his union going, and form a working man’s party. He was Irish by birth, and though in business as a drayman, had some experience as a sailor, and held a master’s certificate. He had borne a good character for industry and steadiness till some friend “put him into stocks,” and the loss of what he hoped to gain is said to have first turned him to agitation. He had gained some faculty in speaking by practice at a Sunday debating club called the Lyceum of Self Culture.

A self-cultivating Lyceum sounds as harmless as a Social Science congress, but there are times when even mutual improvement societies may be dangerous. Kearney’s tongue, loud and abusive, soon gathered an audience. On the west side of San Francisco, as you cross the peninsula from the harbour towards the ocean, there is (or then was) a large open space, laid out for building, but not yet built on, covered with sand, and hence called the Sand Lot. Here the mob had been wont to gather for meetings; here Kearney formed his party. At first he had mostly vagabonds to listen, but one of the two great newspapers took him up.

[392] These two, the Chronicle and the Morning Call, were in keen rivalry, and the former, seeing in this new movement a chance of going ahead, filling its columns with sensational matter, and increasing its sale among working men, went in hot and strong for the Sand Lot party. One of its reporters has been credited with dressing up Kearney’s speeches into something approaching literary form, for the orator was a half educated man, with ideas chiefly gathered from the daily press. The advertisement which the Chronicle gave him by its reports and articles, and which he repaid by advising working men to take it, soon made him a personage; and his position was finally assured by his being, along with several other speakers, arrested and prosecuted on a charge of riot, in respect of inflammatory speeches delivered at a meeting on the top of Nob Hill, one of the steep heights which make San Francisco the most picturesque of American cities. The prosecution failed, and Kearney was a popular hero.

Clerks and the better class of citizens now began to attend his meetings, though many went from mere curiosity, as they would have gone to a circus: the W.P.C. (Working man’s Party of California) was organized as a regular party, embracing the, whole State of California, with Kearney for its president. The gathering on the Sand Lot to which all those “eager for new things,” as the discontented class were of old time called, flocked every Sunday afternoon to cheer denunciations of corporations and monopolists, and to “resolute” against the rich generally, became a centre of San Francisco politics, and through the reports of some newspapers and the attacks of others, roused the people of the entire State.

The Morning Call had now followed the lead of the Chronicle, trying to outbid it for the support of the working men. There was nothing positive, nothing constructive or practical, either in these tirades or in the programme of the party, but an open-air crowd is not critical, and gives the loudest cheers to the strongest language.

Kearney had no plans beyond keeping his party going, but he was self-confident, domineering, and not without practical shrewdness. At any rate, he knew how to push himself to the front, and win the reputation of rugged honesty—he always dressed as a workman and ran for no office:—and while denouncing politicians as thieves and capitalists as bloodsuckers, while threatening fire and the halter if the demands of the people were not granted, he tried to avoid direct breaches of the law.

On one occasion he held a gathering beside the mansions of the Central Pacific magnates on Nob Hill, pointed to them and to the bonfire which marked the place of meeting, and while telling the people that these men deserved to have their houses burned, abstained (as I was informed) from suggesting that the torch should be applied then and there. Another time he bade the people wait a little till his party had carried their candidate for the governorship of the State: “Then we shall have the control of the militia and the armouries; then we can go down to the Pacific Mail Company’s dock and turn back the steamers that come in bringing the Chinese.” In an earlier agitation this company’s yard was attacked, but the only person killed was a lad (one of the special constables defending it) whose gun burst.

Immense enthusiasm was evoked by these harangues. He was crowned with flowers; he was, when released from prison on one occasion, drawn in triumph by his followers in his own dray; newspaper reporters thronged around to interview him; prominent politicians came to seek favours from him on the sly. Discontent among the working class was the chief cause that made the new party grow, for grow it did: and though San Francisco was the centre of its strength, it had clubs in Sacramento and the other cities, all led by the San Francisco convention which Kearney swayed. But there were further causes not to be passed over. One was the distrust of the officials of the State and the city.

The municipal government of San Francisco was far from pure. The officials enriched themselves, while the paving, the draining, the lighting were scandalously neglected; corruption and political jobbery had found their way even into school management, and liquor was sold everywhere, the publicans being leagued with the heads of the police to prevent the enforcement of the laws. Another was the support given to their countryman by the Irish, here, a discontented and turbulent part of the population, by the lower class of German immigrants, and by the longshore men, also an important element in this great port, and a dangerous element wherever one finds them.

The activity of the Chronicle counted for much, for it was ably written, went everywhere, and continued to give a point and force to Kearney’s harangues, which made them more effective in print than even his voice had made them to the listening crowds. Some think that the monied classes at this juncture ought to have bought up the Chronicle (supposing they could have done so secretly), and its then editor and proprietor has been much maligned if he would have refused to be bought up. (This editor [Charles De Young] became subsequently famous over America by his “difficulties” with a leading Baptist minister of San Francisco. He had shot this minister in the street from behind the blind of a carriage, and thereby made him so popular that the W.P.C. carried him for their candidate for the mayoralty. The blood feud, however, was not settled by this unintended service, for the clergyman’s son went soon after to the Chronicle office and slew the editor.

The young man was tried, and, of course, acquitted. He had only done what the customary law of primitive peoples requires. It survives in Albania, and is scarcely extinct in Corsica.) The newspapers certainly played a great part in the movement; they turned the Working man’s Party into a force by representing it to have already become one. Most important of all, however, was the popular hatred of the Chinese.

This is so strong in California that any party which can become its exponent rides on the crest of the wave. The old parties, though both denouncing Chinese immigration in every convention they held, and professing to legislate against it, had failed to check it by State laws, and had not yet obtained Federal laws prohibiting it. They had therefore lost the confidence of the masses on this point, while the Sand Lot party, whose leaders had got into trouble for the ferocity of their attacks on the Chinese, gained that confidence, and became the “anti-Mongolian” party par excellence. Kearney ended every speech with the words, “And whatever happens, the Chinese must go.”

Meanwhile, where were the old parties, and what was their attitude to this new one? It is so hard in America to establish a, new movement outside the regular party lines, that when such a movement is found powerful we may expect to find that there exist special causes weakening these lines. Such forces existed in California. She lies so far from the Atlantic and Mississippi States, and has been so much occupied with her own concerns even the War of Secession did not interest her as it did the country east of the Rocky Mountains—that the two great national parties have had a comparatively weak hold on the people.

The Chinese question and the railroad question dwarfed the regular party issues. Neither party had shown itself able to deal with the former—both parties were suspected of having been tampered with on the latter. Both had incurred the discredit which follows every party in hard times, when the public are poor, and see that their taxes have been ill-spent. The Sand Lot party drew its support chiefly from the Democrats, who here as in the East, have the larger share of the rabble: hence its rise was not unwelcome to the Republicans, because it promised to divide and weaken their old opponents; while the Democrats, hoping ultimately to capture it, gave a feeble resistance. [395] Thus it grew the faster, and soon began to run a ticket of its own at city and State elections. It carried most of the city offices, and when the question was submitted to the people whether a new Constitution should be framed for California, it threw its vote in favour of having one and prevailed.

“The hoodlums” (The term “hoodlums” denotes those who are called in Australia “larrikins,” loafing youths of mischievous proclivities) and other ragamuffins who had formed the audience at the first Sand Lot meetings could not have effected this.

But the W.P.C. now got a heavy vote in San Francisco from the better sort of working-men, clerks, and small shop keepers. In the rural districts they had still more powerful allies. The so-called Granger movement had spread from the upper Mississippi States into California, and enlisted the farmers in a campaign against the railroads and other “monopolists” and corporations. To compel a reduction of charges for goods and passengers, to prevent the railroad from combining with the Panama Steamship Company, to reduce public expenditure, to shift more taxation on to the shoulders of the rich, and generally to “cinch“ capital—these were the aims of the Granger party; nor will any one who knows California think them wholly unreasonable. The only way to effect them was by a new Constitution, not only because some could not have been attained uncler the then existing Constitution (passed in 1849 and amended in several points subsequently), but also because the people have more direct control over legislation through a convention making a Constitution than they have over the action of a legislature. The delegates to a convention go straight from the election to their work, have not time to forget, or to devise means of evading, their pledges, are less liable to be “got at” by capitalists. They constitute only one house, whereas the legislature, has two. There is no governor to stand in the way with his veto. The rarity and importance of the occasion fixes public attention.

Thus a new Constitution became the object of the popular cry, and a heavy vote in favour of having it was cast by the country farmers as well as by decent working people in the towns, just because it promised a, new departure and seemed to get behind the old parties. [396] As often happens, the “good citizens,” who ought to have seen the danger of framing a new Constitution. at a time of such excitement, were apathetic and unorganized. Next came, in the summer of 1878, the choice of delegates to the convention which was to frame the new Constitution. The Working man’s Party carried many seats in the convention, but its nominees were mostly ignorant men, without experience or constructive ideas. Anecdotes were still current three, years afterwards of the ignorance of some of the delegates. When the clause prohibiting any “law impairing the obligation of contracts” (taken from the Federal Constitution) was under discussion, a San Francisco delegate objected to it. An eminent lawyer, leader of the Californian bar, who recognized in the objector a little upholsterer who used to do jobs about his house, asked why. The upholsterer replied, that he disapproved altogether of contracts, because he thought work should be done by hiring workmen for the day.

Among the lawyers, who secured a large representation, there were some so closely bound by business ties to the great corporations as to be disposed to protect the interests of these corporations, as well as those of the legal profession. In justice to many of them it must be added that their respect for the principles of the common law and for sound constitutional doctrine led them to do their best to restrain the wild folly of their colleagues. However, the working men’s delegates, together with the more numerous and less corruptible delegates of the farmers, got their day in many things and produced that surprising instrument by which California is now governed.

In: Vol. II, chapter LXXXIX, The American Commonwealth, by Viscount James Bryce, MacMillan and Co., New York, 1889, second edition revised, pp 385-408, and 747-750.

Continue to The New California State Constitution by Viscount Bryce

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

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