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Return to The Character of California, by Viscount James Bryce

I would leave the reader to draw a moral for himself, were he not likely to err, as I did myself, till corrected by my Californian friends, by thinking the whole movement more serious than it really was.

It rose with surprising ease and swiftness. The conditions were no doubt exceptionally favourable. No other population in America furnished so good a field of demagogy. But the demagogue himself was not formidable. He did not make the movement, but merely rode for a moment on the crest of the wave. A European may say that a stronger man, a man with knowledge, education, and a fierce tenacity of fibre, might have built up a more permanent power, and used it with more destructive effect. But the Californians say that a strong man would not have been suffered to do what Kearney did with impunity. Kearney throve because the solid classes despised him, and felt that the best thing was to let him talk himself out and reveal his own hollowness.

The movement fell as quickly as it rose. This was partly due, as has just been said, to the incompetence of the leader, who had really nothing to propose and did not know how to use the force that seemed to have come to his hands. Something, however, must be set down to the credit of the American party system. The existing parties are so strong, and are spread over so wide an area, that it is very difficult to create a new party. Resting on a complex local organization, and supported by the central organization for the purposes of Federal politics, they can survive a temporary eclipse in a particular State, while a new party cannot count itself permanent till it has established some such organization, central as well as local. This may operate badly in keeping old parties alive, when they deserve to die. But it operates well in checking the growth or abridging the life of mischievous local factions. That fund of good sense, moreover, which lies at the bottom of nearly every native American mind, soon produces a reaction against extreme measures. When the native voters, especially those who owned even a little property, had relieved their minds by voting for the new Constitution, they felt they had gone far enough in the direction of change, and at the election of a legislature voted for moderate men. Support from this class having been withdrawn, the rabble of the Sand Lot ceased to be dangerous; and although threats of violence were abundant, and sometimes bloodthirsty, there was very little sedition or disorder.

Every stump orator in the West says a great deal more than he means, and is promptly discounted by his hearers. The populace of San Francisco has now and again menaced the Chinese quarter and the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which brings, or till recent legislation brought, the Chinese over. Once the Chinese armed in defence of China town, and twice during these agitations a committee of public safety was formed to protect the banks and keep order in the streets. But many people doubt whether order was really endangered. The few attacks made on Chinese stores were done by small bands of hoodlums, who disappeared at the sight of the police. The police and militia seem to have behaved well all through. Moreover, any serious riot would in San Francisco be quelled speedily and severely by the respectable classes, who would supersede the municipal authority if it seemed to fear, or to be secretly leagued with, the authors of sedition. Even the meetings of the various political parties were scarcely ever disturbed or “bull-dozed” by their opponents. When the Kearneyites once or twice molested Democratic meetings, they were so promptly repelled, that they desisted for the future.

There was very little of conscious or constructive communism or socialism in the movement. Kearney told the working men that the rich had thriven at their expense, and talked of hanging thieves in office, and burning the houses of capitalists. But neither he nor any other demagogue assailed the institution of property. The farmers, whose vote carried the new Constitution owned their farms and would have recoiled from suggestions of agrarian socialism. And in fact the new Constitution, although it contains provisions hostile to capital, “is anything but agrarian or communistic, for it entrenches vested rights, especially in land, more thoroughly than before....It is anything but a working man’s Constitution; it levies a poll tax without exemption; disfranchises a considerable portion, of the floating labour vote; Prevents the opening of public works in emergencies, and in various ways which working men, even in their present stage of enlightenment, may easily see, sacrifices the interests of the labouring classes, as well as the capitalists, to what the landowners regard as their interests.” (From an article written by Henry George in the August 1880 Popular Science Monthly.) A solitary Parisian communist who was elected to the convention “exercised no influence, and was expelled from the party for refusing to support the new Constitution.” There were some rich men, and lawyers connected with the great corporations, among the candidates and supporters of the Sand Lot party. Others of the same class who tried secretly to use it had probably their selfish ends to serve, but would have been less willing to increase its strength had they regarded it as an attack on property in general. The fact is that theoretical communism has no hold upon native Americans, while its practical application does not commend itself to farmers who own their land and workmen who own their houses. The belief which prevailed in the eastern States that the movement had a communistic character was therefore a mistaken one.

More mischief would have been done but for the existence of the Federal Constitution. It imposed a certain check on the Convention, who felt the absurdity of trying to legislate right in the teeth of an overruling instrument.

It has been the means of upsetting some of the clauses of the Constitution of 1879, and some of the statutes passed by the legislature under them, and has discouraged attempts to pass others.

On the whole, not much evil has been wrought, at least not much compared with what was feared in the State itself, and believed in the East to have resulted. The better sort of Californians two years after were no longer alarmed, but seemed half ashamed and half amused when they recollected the scenes I have described. They felt somewhat as a man feels when he awakes unrefreshed after a night of bad dreams. He fears at first that his parched tongue and throbbing head may mean that he is in for an illness. But when he has breakfasted and is again immersed in work these sensations and apprehensions disappear together. After all, say the lawyers and bankers of San Francisco we are going on as before, property will take care of itself in this country, things are not really worse so far as our business is concerned.

Neither are things better. It is natural to suppose that a shock, however short, must make a difference to a community, and affect its future fortunes. If this shock has so affected California, the results are not yet apparent. Though the new Constitution has not altered the economic condition of the workmen and farmers, it might have been thought that the crisis, which suddenly startled this busy and luxurious society, would rouse good citizens to a more active interest in politics, make them see the necessity of getting better men into the offices and the legislature and indeed of purifying public life altogether. But I could not discover that these consequences have followed. In the stress and hurry of Californian life, impressions pass swiftly away. Good citizens are disposed to stand aside; and among the richer there are those who look forward to a time when, having made their fortunes, they will go East to spend them. It may be that another shock is in store for the Golden State, more violent than the last, although equally within legal limits, for of mere mob law and anarchy there seems no danger. The forces at the disposal of order are always the stronger. It may on the other hand be that as society settles down from the feverish instability of these early days, as the mass of the people acquire a more enlightened view of their true interests, as those moral influences which count for so much in America assert their dominion more widely, the present evils will slowly pass away.

The president of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 [William T. Coleman] told me that all he had seen happen in San Francisco, since the days when it was a tiny Spanish mission station, made him confident that everything would come out straight. Probably he is right. American experience shows that the optimists generally are.


I give here a few of the more novel or curious provisions of the Constitution of California of 1879....

I. A main object was to prevent the corruption of the legislature and of office-holders. Art. iv. § 35 provides that a legislator influenced in his vote by reward or promise of reward is to be deemed guilty of felony, and punished accordingly, as well as disfranchised and disqualified from ever holding any office. The making of profit out of any public (city, town, or county) moneys, or using them otherwise than as authorized by law, is declared to be a felony. Official salaries are limited. The higher judges are required to give their decisions in writing, stating the grounds (vi. § 3). The powers of the legislature are restricted in a hundred ways, till the reader asks what can be left to it (iv. § 25, xi. §§ 2, 3, 6, 9-14). Whenever the legislature has to elect to any office, members must vote viva voce and have their votes recorded (iv. § 28). These restrictions on the legislature were probably necessary. Similar ones are to be found in nearly all the newer State Constitutions. But the air of suspicion that runs through them, and the penalties threatened against corruption, show how little hope was entertained of seeing the election of honest men.

II. The attempt to diminish the burden of taxation is made in two ways. One is by limiting the power of the legislature and of local authorities to incur debts and to undertake public works, as well as by fencing round State appropriations with safeguards designated to protect the treasury (see Arts. xvi. § 1, xi. §§ 18, 19, iv. § 34). Another is by imposing taxes on property which had previously escaped it, or borne it at a comparatively low valuation. “Cultivated and uncultivated land of the same quality and similarly situated shall be assessed at the same value.” This strikes also at the practice of holding land for a rise (Art. xiii. § 2). A mortgage contract or other obligation securing a debt is for the purposes of taxation to be deemed an interest in the property it affects; the owner of the property is (except as to railroads, and other quasi-public corporations) to be taxed on its value minus the amount of the security, and the owner of the security taxed on its value in the district where the property is situate. All future contracts for the payment of taxes by a debtor on money loaned, or on a mortgage, are to be void as to any interest specified therein, and as to any tax.

II. Several attacks are leveled at corporations. Every stockholder is to be personally liable for all liabilities incurred while he was a stockholder in proportion to his holding. No corporation shall hold for more than five years any real estate except such as is necessary for carrying on its business (xii. § 9). There are provisions against the issue of stock or bonds, except for money actually paid or property received. Railroad companies are forbidden to combine with shipowners for a sharing of earnings. Discrimination in charges by railroads, or the charging less for transportation over a longer distance than is charged for a shorter distance, are strictly prohibited. A board of railroad commissioners is created, one to be elected in each of three State districts, with the power and the duty to establish rates of charged for the transportation of passengers and freight, to examine the books and papers of all railroad and other transportation companies, prescribe a uniform system of accounts for, and determine complaints against, such companies. A company may be heavily fined for non-compliance, and exemplary damages given against it by a jury in any action for charging excessive rates. “All contracts for the sale of shares of the capital stock of any corporation, on margin or to be delivered on a future day, shall be void, and any money paid on such contracts may be recovered by the party paying it by suit in any court of competent jurisdiction” (iv. § 26).

III. A whole article is dedicated to the Chinese (Art. xix.) Among other things it contains the following: “The presence of foreigners ineligible to become citizens of the United States is declared to be dangerous to the well-being of the State, and the legislature shall discourage their immigration by all the means within its power. Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labour shall be void. All companies or corporations, whether formed in this country or in any foreign country, for the importation of such labour, shall be subject to such penalties as the legislature may prescribe.” This solicitude to prevent a “form of human slavery ” without any reference to the main ground of hostility to the Chinese, recalls Bill Nye’s reflections on “Cheap Chinee labour,” after he had been cheated by Ah Sin. There are, of course, better reasons than either the Convention’s or Bill Nye’s for dislikng Chinese immigration. Art. ii. § 1 attempts to exclude any “native of China” from ever exercising the privileges of an elector in California. But see the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Chinese have not hitherto sought naturalization, and seldom remain more than a few years.

V. A provision that “The public school system shall include primary and grammar schools, and such high schools and evening schools, normal schools and technical schools, as may be established by the State or a local authority, but the entire revenue derived from the State school fund and the State school tax shall be applied exclusively to the support of primary and grammar schools” (ix. § 6) was at first regretted by the wiser sort as indicating an indifference to secondary education; but has been found to work for good in including the cities, when they could not draw upon the State school fund for the support of their high schools, to make a more liberal provision than formerly for these schools out of local taxation.

VI. Among improvements introduced by the new contribution may be noted the lengthening of the term of judges of the supreme court from ten to twelve years, the prohibition of lotteries, the perpetual exclusion from the suffrage of all persons convicted of any infamous crime, or of the embezzlement or misappropriation of public money; and the placing [of] the State university above the reach of the legislature, which can now neither terminate its existence nor modify its organization. This change has not been found to make the legislature less willing to aid the university. In 1887 an Act was passed imposing an ad valorem tax of one cent upon every $100 of taxable property, to be applied for the support of the University of California.

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 Remarks on Kearneyism in California by Denis Kearney

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

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