search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

Return to The Character of California, by Viscount James Bryce

An able Californian writer gives the following account of the Constitution of 1879 :—

“The new Constitution adopted in May 1879 made radical changes in almost every department of the Government. It completely changed the judicial system, and thereby rendered necessary an alteration of almost all the laws relating to civil and criminal procedure. It revolutionized the working, and to a great extent the scope of the legislative department, lopping off special and local legislation, and obliging the objects heretofore obtained by such legislation to be covered by general law. As a part of this revolution, it required a new plan of county, township, and city organization, with the idea partly of forcing the same general laws upon all local governments, and partly of investing such local governments with power to legislate for themselves. But the main underlying spirit of the new instrument was an attack upon capital under the specious name of opposition to monopolies.

“To use an expressive Californian phrase, capital, and especially accumulated capital, wherever it was found, was to be ‘cinched.’ [“Cinching” is drawing tight the girths of a horse.] With this object in view, cheap labour was to be driven out of the country, and corporations so restricted and hampered in their operations as to be unable to make large profits. The cry was that there were unjust discriminations on the part of railroads, and extortionate rates on the part of water and gas companies; that vicious practices were indulged in by mining corporations that fair day’s wages for fair day’s labour could not be obtained; that rich men rolled in luxury, and that poor men were cramped with want. It may be admitted that there were some grounds for these complaints. But it does not follow that capital was any more tyrannical or corporations are more unconscionable than by their very nature they are compelled to be.

“The circling course of events had brought around a period of hard times. The result was the new order of things, an attempt to remedy the evils of the times by an attack in the shape of constitutional legislation upon wealth, and the various laws and systems by which wealth is accumulated and kept together It cannot be said to have been a malicious attack: it was not intended on the part of the majority who advocated it as communism; but it was, to say the least, the application of violent and dangerous remedies for a disease which ought to have been treated by a gentler method.”

Some of the above points, and particularly the changes in local government and in the judicial system, lie outside the scope of the present narrative, which is intended to illustrate how democracy may work in a State government. We may therefore confine ourselves to inquiring how far the objects, timed at by the Sand Lot party were attained through the Constitution whose enactment it had secured. They and the Grangers, or farmer’s party, which made common cause with them, sought to deal with four questions in which lay the grievances chiefly complained of by discontented Californians.

These were—

The general corruption of politicians, and bad conduct of State, county, and city government.
Taxation, alleged to press too heavily on the poorer classes.
The tyranny of corporations, especially railroads.
The Chinese.
Let us see what remedies the Constitution applied to each of these. The cry of the Sand Lot party had been: “None but honest men for the offices.” To find the honest men, and, having found them, to put them in office and keep them there, is the great problem of American politics. The contributions made to its solution by the Convention of 1879 were neither novel nor promising....

Here I will merely sum up its main results under the four heads above-mentioned.

1. It restricts and limits in every possible way the powers of the State legislature, leaving it little authority except to carry out by statutes the provisions of the Constitution. It makes “lobbying,” i.e. the attempt to corrupt a legislator, and the corrupt action of a legislator, felony.

2. It forbids the State legislature or local authorities to incur debts beyond a certain limit, taxes uncultivated land equally with cultivated, makes sums due on mortgage taxable in the district where the mortgaged property lies, authorizes an income tax, and directs a highly inquisitorial scrutiny of everybody’s property for the purposes of taxation.

3. It forbids the “watering of stock,” declares that the State has power to prevent corporations from conducting their business so as to “infringe the general well-being of the State”; directs the charges of telegraph and gas companies, and of water-supplying bodies, to be regulated and limited by law institutes a railroad commission with power to fix the transportation rates on all railroads and examine the books and accounts of all transportation companies.

4. It forbids all corporations to employ any Chinese, debars them from the suffrage, forbids their employment on any public works, annuls all contracts for “coolie labour,” directs the legislature to provide for the punishment of any company which shall import Chinese, to impose conditions on the residence of Chinese, and to cause their removal if they fail to observe these conditions.

It also declares that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work on all public works.

When the Constitution came to be submitted to the vote of the people, in May 1877, it was vehemently opposed by the monied men, who of course influence, in respect of their wealth, a far larger number of votes than they themselves cast. Several of the conservative delegates had, I was told, abstained from putting forth their full efforts to have the worst proposals rejected by the Convention in the belief that when the people came to consider them, they would ensure the rejection of the whole instrument. Some of its provisions were alleged to be opposed to the Constitution of the United States, and therefore null. Others were denounced as ruinous to commerce and industry, calculated to drive capital out of the country. The struggle was severe, but the Granger party commanded so many rural votes, and the Sand Lot party so many in San Francisco (whose population is nearly a third of that of the entire State), that the Constitution was carried, though by a small majority, only 11,000 out of a total of 145,000 citizens voting. Of course it had to be enacted as a whole, amendment being impossible where a vote of the people is taken.

The next thing was to choose a legislature to carry out the Constitution. Had the same influences prevailed in this election as prevailed in that of the Constitutional Convention, the results might have been serious. But fortunately there was a slight reaction, now that the first and main step seemed to have been taken. The Republicans, Democrats, and Sand Lot party all ran “tickets,” and owing to this division of the working men’s and the Granger vote between Kearneyite candidates and the Democrats, the Republicans secured a majority, though a small one. Now the Republicans are in California, as they would themselves say, the moderate or conservative party, or as their opponents said, the party of the rich and the monopolists.

Their predominance made the legislature of 1880 a body more cautious than might have been expected. Professing hearty loyalty to the new Constitution, the majority showed this loyalty by keeping well within the letter of that instrument, while the working men and farmer members were disposed to follow out by bold legislation what they called its spirit. Thus the friends and the enemies of the Constitution changed places. Those who had opposed it in the Convention posed as its admirers and defenders; while those who had clamoured for and carried it now began to wish that they had made its directions more imperative. The influence and the money of the railroad and the other great corporations were of course brought into play, despite the terrors of a prosecution for felony, and became an additional “conservative force” of great moment.

[400]Thus a series of statutes was passed which gave effect to the provisions of the Constitution in a form perhaps as little harmful as could be contrived, and certainly less harmful than had been feared when the Constitution was put to the vote. Many bad bills, particularly those aimed at the Chinese, were defeated, and one may say generally that the expectations of the Sand Lot men were grievously disappointed.

While all this was passing, Kearney had more and more declined in fame and power. He did not sit either in the Constitutional Convention or in the legislature of 1880. The mob had tired of his harangues, especially as little seemed to come of them, and as the candidates of the W.P.C. had behaved no better in office than those of the old parties. He had quarreled with the Chronicle. He was, moreover, quite unfitted by knowledge or training to argue the legal, economical, and political questions involved in the new constitution, so that the prominence of these questions threw him into the background. An anti-Chinese agitation, in which the unemployed marched about San Francisco, calling on employers to discharge all Chinese workmen, caused some alarm in the winter of 1879-80, but Kearney was absent at the, time, and when he returned his party was wavering. Even his prosecution and imprisonment on what seems to have been a somewhat trivial charge gave only a brief revival to his popularity. The W.P.C. was defeated in a city election in March 1880 by a combination of the better class of Democrats with the Republicans, and soon after expired.

When I was in San Francisco in the fall of 1881, people talked of Kearney as a spent rocket. Some did not know ether he was in the city. Others said that the capitalists had rendered him harmless by the gift of a new dray and team. Not long afterwards he went East, and mounted the stump on behalf of the Labour party in New York. He proved, however, unequal to his reputation, for mob oratory is a flower which does not always bear transplantation to a new soil. Since 1880 he has played no part in Californian politics, and was indeed, in 1883, so insignificant that no one then seemed to care to know where he went or what he was doing. And now, as the Icelandic sagas say, he is out of the story.

After the session of 1880, Californian polities resumed their old features. Election frauds are said to have become less frequent since glass ballot boxes were adopted, whereby the practice of stuffing of a box with papers before the voters arrive in the morning has been checked. But the game between the two old parties goes on as before. What remained of the Sand Lot group was, reabsorbed into the Democratic party, out of which it had mainly come, and to which it had strong affinities. The city government of San Francisco is much what it was before the agitation, nor does the legislature seem to be any purer or wiser. When the railroad commission had to be elected) the railroad magnates managed so to influence the election, although it was made directly by the people, that two of the three commissioners chosen were, or soon afterwards came, under their influence, while the third was a mere declaimer. None of them (as I was told in 1883) possessed the practical knowledge of railway business needed to enable them to deal, in the manner contemplated by the Constitution, with the oppressions alleged to be practised by the railroads; and the complaints of those oppressions seemed to be as common as formerly.

I asked why the railroad magnates had not been content to rely on certain provisions of the Federal Constitution against the control sought to be exerted over their undertaking. The answer was that they had considered this course, but had concluded that it was cheaper to capture a majority of the Commission. Of course I do not vouch for the accuracy of the account which my Californian informants gave me, but merely repeat what seemed the prevailing opinion.

[402] (The passing of the Inter-State Commerce Act by Congress has now somewhat changed the situation.) Some of the legislation framed under the Constitution of 1879 has already been pronounced by the Supreme Court of the State invalid, as opposed to that instrument itself or to the Federal Constitution, and more of it may share the same fate.

The condition of the people at large does not seem to have substantially changed, though restrictions imposed on the legislature (as regards special legislation) and on local authorities (as regards borrowing and the undertaking of costly public works) have proved beneficial. The net result of the whole agitation was to give the monied classes in California a fright; to win for the State a bad name throughout America, and, by checking for a time the influx of capital, to retard her growth just when prosperity was reviving over the rest of the country; to worry, without seriously crippling, the great corporation, and to leave the working classes and farmers where they were. No great harm has been done, but a mischievous example has been set, and an instrument remains in force which may some day, should popular clamour insist on the execution of some of its clauses, and the passing of further legislation in the sense they contemplate, be made the means of inflicting injury on the capitalist class.

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 Observations of the Movement by Viscount Bryce

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

Return to top of page