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Return to The Character of California, by Viscount James Bryce

Photograph of Denis KearneyWhile the sheets of the second half of this volume were passing through the press, I received a letter from Mr. Denis Kearney, making remarks on some of the statements contained. in the chapter entitled “Kearneyism in California.” This letter is unfortunately too long to be inserted as a whole; and time does not permit me to communicate with my Californian informants and re-investigate all the matters to which Mr. Kearney refers. I have, however, in a few passages slightly modified the text of the former edition; and where I did not feel in a position to do this, I have made such extracts from the letter as seemed sufficient to let Mr. Kearney’s view of the facts, and of his own conduct, be fairly and fully set forth. As he responded to my invitation to state his case, made in reply to a letter of remonstrance from him, I am anxious that all the justice I can do him should be done.

After disputing the authority (which, however, does not seem to me to be affected by his strictures) of the Californian gentleman who had revised and corrected the chapter in question, Mr. Kearney’s letter proceeds as follows:

“After the adoption of the new constitution and the passage of the Anti-Chinese Restriction Bills of 1879 and 1882 California began to move, and she is still a booming. Chinese immigration is excluded. There are a few smuggled in over the borders of British Columbia on the north and Mexico on the south. I spent the winter of 1887-8 in New York and Washington agitating for the total exclusion of the Chinese, which resulted in the Scott Exclusion Act of 1888. My next fight will be to get Canada to pass an Anti-Chinese Exclusion Law. At present she is being made the dumping ground for Asiatic pests who are afterwards smuggled into our country. This, my dear sir, must not be considered a voice from the tomb. I am a young man just turning 43,—chock full of vitality, and a great deal of experience: while I may not be able to set the world afire, I am in hopes of living long enough to see the Asiatic hordes excluded from this continent from Cape Horn to Icy Cape. As you suggested I have in the following disputed certain passages, trusting you will do me the justice either to modify the same or add a note in the new edition stating that I dispute,” etc.
Yours very respectfully,


“Pages 390-391. —In September 1877, immediately after the general state, municipal, and congressional elections, I called a meeting of working, men and others to discuss publicly the propriety of permanently organizing for the purpose of holding the politicians up to the pledges made to the people before election. I made up my mind that if our civilization—California civilization—was to continue, Chinese immigration must be stopped, and I saw in the people the power to enforce that I ‘must.’ Hence the meeting. This meeting resolved itself into a permanent organization, and ‘resoluted’ in favour of a ‘red-hot’ agitation. I was, in spite of my earnest protests, elected President of this new organization, with instructions from the meeting to I push the organization I throughout the city and State without delay. Our aim was to press Congress to take action against the Chinese at its next sitting. I did not sympathise with the July meeting of 1877, which was called to express sympathy with the men on strike in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.—I am opposed to strikes in a Republic, where the ballot of a millionaire’s gardener or coachman cancels that of their master. A strike amid such conditions is a brutal way of settling a difficulty. Pitting an empty belly and no bank account against a full belly and a plethoric bank book brings it down to a question of ‘bellys.’ It does not require a very great scientist to tell us which gives out first. I wanted to tell our people to strike at the ‘ballot box,’ to do which they must be organized, etc. The part that I took in the municipal election, mentioned in page 391, was brought about in this way. I owned a prosperous draying business, and was an influential member of the Draymen’s Union. The streets of our city were in a horrible condition, almost impassable, making it very difficult for teams to haul any kind of a load to and from the distributing centres. The money appropriated for their repair by the taxpayers was squandered by the men elected to see that it was honestly spent. The Draymen’s Union, for self protection, went into municipal politics and demanded that we be given the superintendent of streets.

“Page 392.—True I am not one of the literati, that is to say, a professor of degrees and master of languages, although I can speak more than one. For more than thirty years I have been a great reader and close student of men and measures. No Chronicle reporter ever wrote or dressed up a speech for me. They did the reverse always made it a point to garble and misrepresent. It was only when the Chronicle saw where it could make a hit that it spread out a speech. To illustrate, if I attacked a monopoly whose rottenness the Chronicle shielded for money, it then would garble and misrepresent that speech; but if I attacked an institution the Chronicle wanted to blackmail, the speech would be given in full once or twice, or they would keep it up until ‘seen.’

“Page 392.—(Meeting on Nob Hill.) I did not use any such language as is imputed to me. Nob Hill is the centre of the Sixth Ward, and I advertised for the meeting there to organize the Sixth Ward Club. We had bonfires at all our meetings so as to direct the people where to go. No such construction could have been put upon the language used in my speech of that evening. The police authorities had shorthand reporters specially detailed to take down my speeches verbatim. I was not arrested on account of the Nob Hill meeting. I cannot now tell without looking up the matter how many times I was arrested. At last the authorities, finding their efforts to break up the movement of no avail, decided to proclaim the meetings å la Balfour in Ireland. Upon the heels of the proclamation to stop our meetings came another from the Governor calling for an election to fill a vacancy in the legislature in the aristocratic district of Alameda. Taking advantage of the situation, I went into the district, organized and carried it against a combination of both Democrats and Republicans. This gave us a standing in the field of politics, and frightened the authorities, who then and there withdrew opposition to the new movement.

“Page 396.—Shortly after the election of the delegates I made a tour of the United States, speaking everywhere to immense audiences and urging that they petition Congress to stop Chinese immigration. My trip was a brilliant success. In less than a year I had succeeded in lifting the Chinese from a local to a great national question. This also disputes the statement on p. 401 that my trip East was a failure.

“Page 401.—(‘Since 1880 he has played no part in Californian politics.’) This is true to this extent. I stopped agitating after having shown the people their immense power, and how it could be used. The Chinese question was also in a fair way of being solved. The plains of this state were strewn with the festering carcasses of public robbers. I was poor, with a helpless family, and I went to work to provide for their comfort. Common sense would suggest that if I sought office, or the emoluments of office, I could easily have formed combinations to be elected either governor of my State or United States senator.

“Page 395.—(‘Hoodlums and other ragamuffins who formed the first Sand Lot meetings.’) It was only when the city authorities, who while persecuting us, either hired all of the halls or frightened their owners or lessees into not allowing us to hire them, that we were driven to the Sand Lots. At these early meetings we sometimes had to raise from $500 to $1000 to carry on the agitation inside and outside the courts. If, then, the audiences were composed of hoodlums and ragamuffins, how could we have raised so much money at a single meeting?

“Page 400.—I also dispute some of the statements therein. All of the bills of the first session of the Legislature under the new constitution were declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court on account of the little scheming jokers tucked away in them. The Anti-Chinese Bills that were passed,—and all introduced were passed,—were declared by the Federal judges as in conflict with the United States Constitution. I advocated the adoption of the new Constitution, and delivered one hundred and thirty speeches in that campaign. The San Francisco papers sent correspondents with me. The very prominence of the questions threw me into the foreground, so that I had to stand the brunt of the battle, and came very near being assassinated for my pains. Against me were all the newspapers and speakers, including Mr. Henry George. An immense corruption fund was raised to defeat it, so that our opponents had flooded the State with speakers: only a few were on our side. This kept me on the jump day and night. I doubt very much if you, sir, could have worked up a new speech every day, and kept it up for ten weeks. This I had to do.

“Page 402.—(‘Kearney throve because the solid classes despised him’). I don’t quite understand what you mean by the ‘solid classes.’ The money-lenders, land monopolists, and those who were growing rich by importing and employing Chinese labourers were against me, and did all in their power to kill both the movement and myself. My only crime seems to have been that I opposed the Mongolization of my State in the interest of our own people and their civilization. I never received a dollar from public office or private parties for my services. They were gratuitous, and have secured me, I am sure, the esteem of the majority of my fellow-citizens, among whom I am still not without influence.”

In: Vol. II, The American Commonwealth, by Viscount James Bryce, MacMillan and Co., New York, 1889, second edition revised, pp 747-750.
History of Chinese in San Francisco, and History of San Francisco Labor

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