Senator William Gwin and the Politics of Prejudice
By Howard A. DeWitt.
California's politics of prejudice emerged in the 1850s. In this selection, the role of Senator William Gwin is analyzed against the backdrop of the Golden State. As a pro-slavery Democrat, Gwin had an ideological direction which gave birth to the institutionalized right wing. During the 1850s, Gwin was not only the leading voice of local conservatism, but he was the catalyst to those who feared the impending changes in California society. These fears were largely fueled by Gwin stressing that immigration and assimilation threatened the social balance. By the eve of the American Civil War, Senator Gwin's politics produced an identifiable prejudice in California politics. As a result, he popularized many political ideas that still are fashionable. The use of demagoguery, the oppressive power of the majority and the idea of limiting the rights of ethnic groups has remained an integral part of California civilization. Senator William Gwin didn't necessarily give birth to these notions but he fostered their popularity and permanence in California. This selection examines how Gwin created the politics of prejudice.
California became a pawn in national politics because of the slavery debate. From the time that the United States seized the Golden State from Mexico on July 7, 1846, there was a debate over California's political future. Would it become a free or slave state? This question intrigued everyone and led to prolonged conflict over the ideological direction of the Golden State. One man who benefited from this turmoil was an obscure Southern politician, William Gwin.
Who was William Gwin? He was Southern born on October 9, 1805 near Fountain Bend in the northern part of Sumner county, northeast of Nashville in Middle Tennessee. From birth Gwin was groomed for politics. Early on he learned to defend the basic tenets of slavery. His education created the notion that the working class needed controls. This translated into the use of nativism in Gwin's politics. While he never joined the nativist-minded American Party, Gwin did agree with its notion of restricting the wrong type of immigrants. These immigrants were invariably European, Catholic and worked in the city. Where did Gwin develop his political ideas?
It was in Gwin's education that he developed his sense of superiority and political wisdom. Like many young Southern aristocrats, Gwin was provided with tutors and had a superior education. At twenty one, he passed the bar exam. But he was a lawyer with a desire for continued education. So Gwin enrolled at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the age of twenty three received a medical degree. His thesis on "Syphilis" ran twenty three pages and he accepted the medical license with the notion of moving into private practice. But he soon caught the political bug. It was the Age of the Common Man and there was opportunity for political and economic gain in the American West.
It was on the frontier that Gwin's education defined his politics of prejudice. His view of Mexican Californians, Native Americans and African Americans was one that emphasized their alleged biological and societal inferiority. It was a cruel and dehumanizing racism that had its genesis in Gwin's nearly two decade apprenticeship in western politics.
In 1831, young Gwin went to work as the personal secretary for President Andrew Jackson. Although Gwin wasn't hired because of his ability, President Jackson owed a personal debt to Gwin's father, he was an excellent protégé. While under President Jackson's tutelage, Gwin learned the essential elements of political patronage. He became a staunch pork barrel Democrat who believed that federal funds or the promise of them could buy political power.
Initially, President Jackson set William Gwin up in Mississippi politics. He was nominated as a U.S. Federal Marshall for Southern Mississippi. This appointee position carried an annual income of $75,000, but this was understood to be little more than a stepping stone to running for the United States Senate. None of President Jackson's plans worked out. Mississippi Senator George Poindexter opposed Gwin's appointment thereby making it difficult for him to succeed. It wasn't until President Jackson replaced Senator Poindexter that Gwin finally was appointed to the federal Marshall position
Mississippi, on to California and the Formation of Gwin's Political Ideology
This background in Mississippi politics taught Gwin a number of important lessons. He realized the importance of party loyalty. With President Jackson as his mentor, Gwin learned how to employ political power. Using patronage to build political foundation was the main lessor Eventually, Gwin used this technique to build his California political machine.
He also sought greater personal wealth. He was an opportunist who use his political knowledge for financial gain. When investments in Indian lands were opened up by President Jackson's lax policies, Gwin jumped in and became wealthy man. As a lawyer, Gwin represented the Chickasaw' Indian Nation against the federal government. When he finished their case the chiefs we presented with a bill for $56,021.49, and they were forced to pay Gwin with large chunks of their most valuable land. He literally threw local Native Americans their land. Privately, Gwin mocked the intelligence and reinforced the pro-slavery Democratic party notion that other ethnic groups were inferior.
As a gentleman with a fine education, a degree of wealth and a belief that aristocracy should control government institutions, he was the perfect embodiment of future California prejudice.In 1840, William Gwin was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Mississippi and served one term without distinction. When twenty-seventh Congress convened Washington DC in 1841, Gwin was timid around fellow members of the House of Representatives. He seldom spoke during House debate and his only interest was providing pork barrel funds for his district.
During this time Gwin's finances began to unravel. His land deals hadn't turned out to be as lucrative as he imagined. So Gwin turned to politics for salvation. He would find a political position and use this to enhance his dwindling fortune. Once James K. Polk ascended to the presidency in the mid-1840s there was speculation that Gwin would become a cabinet member. But opportunities in national politics failed to materialize. Soon the Democratic Party looked to California and the party leadership sent Gwin to the Golden State. The Democrats sent Gwin into California to guide the constitutional convention toward statehood. Along the way he would line his pockets with lucrative investments.
On June 4, 1849, the Panama sailed into San Francisco. As the steamship approached the treacherous inlet to the Bay, the gray fog seemed to cast a spell on the ship. The passengers on the Panama were not ordinary ones. In addition to future United States Senator William Gwin, there were other important Californians who entered the political-economic-social arena via the trip. After Gwin migrated to the Golden State, Bayard Taylor arrived in San Francisco. He was an aspiring poet who had little interest in politics, economic gain or fame. He was a famous scholar who had translated Goethe's Faust into English. The violence and decadence in the Golden State inspired Taylor to write one of the best early histories. Taylor was typically of the wandering American who migrated west seeking a passionate new civilization and embracing it.
Many early Californians were fanatics. Law and order was on their mind. Davy Scannal was a man obsessed with the role of the sheriff in California. When he arrived in San Francisco on the Panama, Scannal became a member of the extralegal police force known as the "Hounds." This lawless brigade of thugs was responsible for the San Francisco Vigilante Committee of 1851. Scannal complained that San Francisco businessmen didn't understand that the "Hounds" were simply honorable citizens driving the riff raff from the city. The tragedy is that Scannal terrorized the city for years in the name of his own brand of law and order. He would roam drunkenly on the downtown streets near Market and Montgomery and threaten San Francisco citizens. Ironically, Broderick eventually selected Scannal as a San Francisco Sheriff. Yankee Sullivan, former heavyweight champion of America, remarked that Scannal was the most dangerous man in the Golden State.
There were others who represented the common person. One was Billy Mulligan, a chronic alcoholic as well as a political enforcer for whoever had the money and liquor. He was like a little bull dog with an ugly, pinched face and a penchant for explosive violence. His standing amongst San Franciscans was legendary, since Mulligan became Charles Cora's jailer when the Italian gambler was arrested. Not surprisingly, Sheriff Davy Scannal was a good friend of Mulligan's and one of his drinking buddies.
Another important Californian, William T. Coleman, arrived on the Panama and was instrumental in vigilante activity in both the 1850s and 1870s. When he entered San Francisco vigilante politics, he had matinee idol good looks and claimed to be a direct descendent of the nation's first president George Washington. Like Scannal and Mulligan, Coleman was a law and order fanatic obsessed with the wrong people migrating to the Golden State. Fortunately, his erratic behavior and heavy drinking prevented him from political success. Like the others, Coleman didn't possess Gwin's political pedigree.
As Gwin arrived in San Francisco, he was officially writing a government report. Unofficially, Gwin was defending slavery while seeking a position of power and prestige. When Gwin arrived in California there was opportunity to establish his political reputation by helping to write a state constitution. He was fond of telling people that he came to California for no other purpose than to influence the document designed to bring statehood.
When the Constitutional Convention of 1849 met in Monterey, Gwin was a prominent member. As the delegates met at Colton Hall, a large stone building used as a schoolhouse during the Mexican War, Gwin soon found that local politicians ignored his quest to become the body President. The Monterey Constitutional Convention selected a pioneer resident of the Golden State, Dr. Robert Semple, to handle the proceedings. This comeuppance may have been Gwin's fault, because he often remarked that his political education was superior to that of his colleagues.
How did Gwin distinguish himself at the Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849? His rhetoric, arguments and general ideological direction made him the spirit of California's political right wing. Then he purchased a plush wagon and toured the Golden State selling the concept of immediate statehood. As he traveled through the gold fields in 1849, Gwin spun stories of Negro revolts, Catholic political chicanery and foreign intrigue. As a result, he helped give birth to nativism. Gwin realized that his arguments would propel him into national office.
In March, 1849, the United States Congress adjourned after a stormy series of arguments over the future of California. There were a number of contentious debates over the future economic direction of the United States. Many Southerners equated slaves with property and this created debates dividing Californians into liberal and conservative groups.
As a leading Chivalry Democrat, Gwin believed that the future direction of American democracy would be decided in California. Still a young man in his early forties, Gwin had a penchant for reading classic English and European literature. His political image was that of a wealthy, well educated and politically astute Southerner. Although he seldom tipped his political hand, he was a calculating politician.
He also had a vision of American history. It was a dark view. One that saw an excess of democracy. Gwin believed that there was too much political and economic freedom in the Golden State. His personal mission was to introduce a semblance of old style Southern politics. His motivation was to become a controlling force in California politics. His political ambition knew no bounds and he was never encumbered by either ethics or integrity.
Seeking Public Office and Cleansing the State: The California Constitutional Convention of 1849
When Gwin arrived in California on June 4, 1849 he announced his intention to become a United States Senator. At forty-four years of age, Gwin was one of California's most experienced politicians. He also understood the nature of local politics. The Democratic party was split into two factions. One was an anti-slavery group led by New York Tammany Hall Democrat, David Broderick, and the other was the Chivalry Democrats who were pro slavers with a states' rights penchant. Because of his political prominence, Gwin was selected as a member of the California constitutional convention of 1849. As the forty-eight representatives met to write a state constitution, which led to statehood, Gwin was a prominent voice. As the constitutional convention progressed, Gwin became the acknowledged architect of California statehood.
It was easy for Gwin to assume a leadership role, because the California constitutional convention of 1849 was the work of political amateurs. The convention was scheduled to begin on September 1, 1849, but the delegates who chartered a ship to sail the one hundred plus miles from San Francisco to Monterey failed to arrive on time. They were lost in the fog during the four day trip and the ship could not find Monterey's harbor. When deliberations did begin the members of the constitutional convention lacked the political experience to deal with the complex questions of statehood.
Gwin took over and the other delegates often referred to his "haughty and dictatorial manner." During the Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849, Gwin fought with the Californio leader Mariano Vallejo, who represented the Hispanic California interests. The earliest signs of Gwin's racial attitudes were revealed in actions towards Vallejo. When Don Mariano de- fended his fellow Mexican rancheros and their place in California history, Gwin suggested that they were backward economically. When it became apparent that Gwin was not interested in Vallejo's opinion, the Californio displayed his good manner by simply ignoring his hostile colleague.
As Vallejo refused to criticize Gwin's excesses during the Monterey constitution convention of 1848, Gwin erroneously interpreted this as ignorance. With European manners and a sense of gentility, Vallejo looked upon Gwin as a self- serving politician with little integrity. Early in the constitutional convention, Vallejo realized that the Spanish speaking Influence was on the wane. He viewed the developing arguments over slavery as an extension of the American political debate which would lead to the Civil War in 1861 and make the Golden State rife with racial differences. So Vallejo decided to cast his vote with anti-slavery Democrats.
With Vallejo and the seven other Spanish speaking delegates uniting with the Tammany Hall Democrats, the Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1848 included a clause prohibiting the ownership of slaves as well as forbidding California from being a slave holding section. This made the California Constitution of 1849 one of the more liberal and far-sighted documents in the American West. Surprisingly, Gwin did not react to this proposal. He believed that it worked to his personal advantage. He would campaign for the United States Senate as a pro-slavery or Chivalry Democrat, but also he would support the free state proposal. Gwin could then use the fear of slavery to sell his politics of prejudice.
Along with California hero John Charles Fremont, Gwin was selected as a United States Senator. The reason that the California legislature selected Gwin was a simple one. He was well known and well connected in national politics. He also was able to promote strong arguments for immediate statehood.
When the Monterey Constitution Convention of 1849 adjourned, Gwin traveled throughout California in search of political support. His strongest argument was that he was connected to the Democratic party leadership. On January 1, 1850, Senator William Gwin sailed out of the Golden Gate aboard the mail steamer, the Oregon, destined for New York. The stage was set for Senator Gwin to enter national politics and bring the politics of California prejudice into the national political arena.
Senator William Gwin: Statehood and the Birth of the Politics of Prejudice
Once he arrived in Washington D. C., Senator Gwin made obligatory calls on the nation's legislative leaders. The object was to convince these powerful political figures to support California's bid to become the thirty-first state and the sixteenth free state. Not only would this swing the balance of power to the north in the slavery debate, but it would thrust the Golden State into the mainstream of national politics. Senator Gwin's agenda was to protect the rights of slave owners while maintaining California as a free state. It was a strange position. He was a defender of slavery who worked with anti-slavery forces to funnel large sums of federal money to California.
Thrust upon the national stage, it was now Senator elect Gwin's turn to charm his Washington D. C. colleagues. He succeeded admirably. There was no question that California would become the thirty-first state and Senator Gwin was an important force in this triumph. When California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850, it was in part due to Gwin's zealous lobbying for statehood. The London Times, the newspaper which best summed up the remarkable atmosphere surrounding California statehood, editorialized: "Here was a community of some hundreds of thousands of souls, collected from all quarters of the known world … all organized under old Saxon institutions, and actually marching under the command of a mayor and aldermen." What amazed everyone was California's physical size. The Times observed that California was "a state with a territory as large as Great Britain, a population difficult to number, and destinies which one can foretell."
Once California was admitted to the Union, Senator Gwin became its most powerful national spokesperson. Lurking in the shadows was an opponent who would haunt and daunt Gwin throughout the 1850s. This was Senator David Broderick who represented San Francisco, the Irish Catholic migrants and the liberal Tammany Hall oriented Democrats. As a staunch opponent of slavery, Broderick always was present to counter Gwin's political presence.
Gwin's Politics of Prejudice: Hidden Within Federal Improvements
In Washington D. C., Gwin was a celebrity. Since he was the recognized head of the California delegation, there existed special privileges. Among these privileges was the notion that Gwin would assume the mantle of political leadership. So Gwin took California's Congressmen to meet the House and Senate leaders. He was banqueted and treated like royalty.
Senator Gwin's first task once statehood became a reality was to bring internal improvements into the Golden State. With a zeal which amazed his Senate colleagues, Gwin pushed bills through Congress establishing a branch mint and a San Francisco customs house. The jobs created from these federal businesses was staggering and allowed Gwin to appoint his political followers to well paying positions. He also was instrumental in obtaining federal funds for a naval ship- yard, a dry dock at Mare Island and a marine hospital.
Once these projects were underway, Gwin appointed people to positions as project administrators, helped influence bids for contractors and selected federal law enforcement personnel. As a result, he built a political machine which operated on the politics of prejudice. The use of the pork barrel, appointing key supporters to political office or throwing government contracts their way, was an old and established part of American politics. In California, Gwin used the pork barrel to build his own political power. He demanded that anyone awarded a job or a federal contract kick back from 10% to 20% of their pay to the Democratic party coffers. Not surprisingly, Gwin's political campaigns in the 1850s were well financed.
The Land Law of 1851 was Gwin's main triumph. He systematically depleted the Mexican land grantees of their property with a federal law that set up a three man Board of Land Commissioners, sitting in San Francisco, to adjudicate contested land claims. While both the law and process was defended as a fair way to deal with disputed land claims, the end result was to take away the most productive Spanish and Mexican land. Most Mexican land grants were awarded from 1845 to 1846 under the last Mexican Governor, Pio Pico. Gwin argued that these grants were extralegal because Governor Pico realized that American California was a possibility, and he was granting land to his friends.
The result of the Land Law of 1851 appears fair on the surface because most original land grantees retained their property rights. About 600 of the 800 contested Mexican land grants were approved. But these land claims were all one section or 640 acres. The Mexican land grants not approved were those that dominated the area around the San Francisco bay and greater Los Angeles. More than 200 wealthy land owners -watched as the periphery of their land was settled. In a twenty year period the Mexican American aristocracy was reduced to second class citizenship. By using intricate American land law and the legal system, squatters could move in and legally seize Spanish or Mexican lands.
While in Washington DC, Gwin earned an enviable reputation as a shrewd politician. Now it was time to return to California and use his political expertise to forge a strong pro-slavery coalition.
The Triumphant Return of Senator William Gwin and His Rival David Broderick: 1851-1852
When Senator Gwin returned to California, statehood and prosperity created a new atmosphere. When the state legislature met in San Jose on January 2, 1851 it was christened the "Legislature of a Thousand Drinks." It is not surprising that political integrity and personal honesty were not California political traits. The lack of secret elections, open bribery, obvious political corruption and differences between the pro and anti-slavery Democratic factions created a volatile political atmosphere.
The Gold Rush legacy continued to influence Californians. The average politician looked upon the Golden State as a place to get rich. Consequently, the quality of political leadership was so low that members of the state legislature sold lots to unsuspecting buyers that were under water. Local newspapers called this practice a transaction typical of California politics. Then politicians in San Francisco city government swindled the state out of eleven million dollars worth of waterfront property, and local newspapers remarked that it was expected behavior for one branch of government to steal from the other.
The changes taking placing in California in 1851 were profound ones. The gold rush had not only brought in businessmen with get rich quick schemes but also settlers with a defined political position. This created the anti-slavery Tammany Hall Democrats led by Broderick. They controlled a large part of the electoral process and intensified the debate between pro and anti-slavery forces. For a decade these two political factions involved the Golden State in business and racial turmoil and the resulting conservative-liberal split became a hallmark of California society and politics.
The differences between Gwin and Broderick became apparent in the election of 1852. The California Democratic party held a convention to nominate national convention delegates excluding Broderick and his supporters. Broderick was so enraged that he insulted a former governor of Virginia and was challenged to a duel.
On the day of the duel, Broderick sailed in a small boat from San Francisco to an Oakland mud lot. He was dressed in a fine suit and an expensive gold watch hung from his vest. A friend remarked: "If you are going to die, do it with a fine gold watch attached to your vest." As Broderick turned and prepared to fire at his opponent, his gun jammed. His opponent fired and a patch of blood appeared on Broderick's stomach. He then fired his gun six times at his opponent and missed with each shot. As Broderick fell forward holding his stomach, everyone feared that he was dead. After examining the wound the doctor found that his watch had been shattered by the bullet and his stomach was cut with flying glass. Therefore, Broderick was fine and the incident established his firm reputation as a foe of Gwin's Chivalry Democrats. This duel was a portent of things to come as Broderick would die in 1859 in another shooting incident.
Senator William Gwin's Economic Vision Amidst the Turmoil of California Politics
During his early U.S. Senate Career, Gwin had an economic vision which would tie California to the eastern markets. In 1852, Senator Gwin proposed a bill to build a transcontinental railroad. This legislation was doomed with the outbreak of the Civil War because of the controversy over slavery. Northerners hoped to have the railroad built through the free states while Southerners argued for a slave state route. While national politics prevented the bill from passing, Senator Gwin's remarks on the California economy clearly demonstrated his vision for the future. From his earliest days in Mississippi politics, Gwin recognized the importance of implementing the pork barrel for his political purposes. He would use federal funds to buy votes, he would appoint federal marshals to control what he viewed as the lawless Mexican, and he would derail the liberal politics of his rival, State Senator David Broderick. But Gwin also urged golden State businessmen to expand their productivity. It was dangerous, Gwin cautioned, to depend upon government funds.
Some of Gwin's pork barrel schemes backfired. When he campaigned throughout California, Senator Gwin suggested that the U.S. Mint would create unbridled prosperity. Gwin argued that the gold the miners were bringing to San Francisco could be sold at great profit to the U.S. Mint, Gwin argued, and therefore he personally selected Moffat and Company to assay the gold.
This led to a controversy alleging that Gwin was receiving kickbacks. Before the money was sold to the U.S. Mint, it was assayed by Moffat and Company and miners were charged a two and a half per cent fee. Since Moffat and Company was selected to be the middle man, local miners charged collusion. Moffat and Company collected an extra twenty one million dollars in assaying fees, the suspicion that Gwin became wealthier in the process was understandable.
The differences between Gwin and Broderick from 1849 to 1854 stemmed from their view of the future of the Golden State. Not only did Gwin believe that owning slaves was an absolute property right, but he was suspicious of the immigrant. The Mexican, Gwin argued repeatedly, could not be trusted and California needed to emphasize its American roots. By using the federal patronage to appoint his supporters to key political positions and to divert government funds to his friends, Gwin gained strong control over California society. He envisioned a law and order society to control Hispanic influences.
When the California legislature convened in Benicia on January 2, 1854, the temporary capital became a battle ground between Gwin and Broderick. The San Francisco delegates, headed by State Senator Broderick, decided to oppose Gwin's reelection to the United States Senate. They hoped to delay the election of a United States Senator by a year to give Broderick more time to campaign for the Senate seat.
There were numerous fights in the Benicia hotel bars. Billy Mulligan, a tough bully who was only five feet two inches tall, showed up with a famous bandit, Parker H. French, and they announced that they would personally beat up any Gwin supporters. Mulligan was not only a Broderick supporter but he was a legendary barroom fighter. One day Mulligan walked into a restaurant and found a man twice his size verbally berating Broderick. In a new tuxedo and ready for a night on the town, Mulligan walked over and butted the man with his head until he was unconscious. Mulligan then ordered a bottle of champagne and a steak dinner. He emptied the man's wallet and left its contents, more than a $1000, to cover the bill. Then a fierce bully called Snaggle Tooth Billy Williamson rode into town and announced that he would fight a duel with any man who supported the Chivalry Democrats. Not surprisingly, Snaggle Tooth Billy worked for Senator Broderick. These thugs were typical of the wide open California atmosphere and the general level of political corruption.
Gwin's supporters announced that they would not be intimidated. He searched for and found a politician who could charge Senator Broderick with corruption. This member of the California legislature, Senator Elisha T. Peck, informed his colleagues that he had been offered a $5000 bribe to influence the U.S. Senate election. As Peck recounted his story, it was discovered that a follower of Senator Broderick offered the bribe. Although he refused it, he demanded an investigation. In melodramatic fashion, Peck announced that he was putting him- self under the protection of the Gwin Democrats. He feared for his life. Then Billy Mulligan was seen stalking Peck. Fortunately, Mulligan had succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism and was sleeping in alleys. He was no longer a threat to anyone but himself.
The end result was that the election wasn't delayed. This was a defeat for Broderick. Since Senator Gwin was in Washington DC working on legislation and unable to defend himself from Broderick's vicious attacks, he received both sympathy and support from many Californians. To counter this attack, Gwin used the pork barrel and pushed a bill to create the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Then he orchestrated a well publicized bill to rebuild San Francisco's marine hospital. He also led the battle for in- creased funds to settle land disputes. Gwin continued his onslaught by obtaining money for Indian subsistence, the construction of lighthouses, a coastal survey, a comprehensive survey of public lands and an engineering study to create a transcontinental railroad. The use of federal funds to increase California prosperity was a hallmark of Gwin's politics.
Gwin's Political Career Begins Failing Apart: California Nativism in the Mid 1850s
Just as Gwin appeared politically unbeatable, a swing took place in California politics. The American Party, or Know Nothings as they were known, met in 1854 and decried the unlimited immigration, the excessive power of the Irish Catholic San Franciscan and expressed the fear of a papal plot to seize California. The Know Nothings lectured California voters on the need to retain the old American ways. The result was that the nativist Know Nothing separated enough votes to elect J. Neely Johnson as governor.
The influence of the Known Nothing Party established political bigotry in the mainstream of California politics. The resentment toward Hispanics and selected European immigrants, coupled with a rising fear of Chinese immigration, allowed the American Party to triumph. This was a strange defeat because the Democrats had won every election since 1850.
When the campaign to re-elect Gwin took place in early 1855, State Senator Broderick had enough votes to block his reelection. The resulting hate filled atmosphere cut into Gwin and Broderick's political power. As a result, one of California's U.S. Senate seat remained open for two years with Gwin and Broderick on the outside looking in. By April, 1856, Gwin's political managers received word that Broderick was prepared to settle his differences with the Chivalry Democrats. The California Democratic party was in shambles and the voters were looking toward the newly organized Republican Party.
The Election of 1856: The Re-Emergence of Gwin and Broderick and the End of Democratic Political Power
Although the Democratic party was in dire straits, as the election of 1856 approached, Gwin believed that he had an excellent chance for reelection. A meeting was arranged between Gwin and Broderick at an auction house on Merchant Street near Montgomery in San Francisco and they struck a deal to cooperate with one another. The idea was that the California legislature would elect both of them to the United States Senate. There was only one problem, one of the candidates would have to accept a shortened four year term.
When the California legislature convened on January 5, 1857, in Sacramento, Gwin and Broderick were the only two serious candidates for the United States Senate seats. In California politics, Gwin was at a disadvantage because Broderick controlled the California legislature. So they elected him to the six year term and Gwin to the four year U. S. Senate position. This uneasy truce did little to alloy the differences within the Democratic party. It also created the feeling that the Democrats were so divided that the party could never reform itself.
On February 13, 1857, Gwin and Broderick arrived in New York. The reception for the native son, David Broderick, was like that of a hero returning from war. The Tammany Hall Democrats turned out with a band, banners and speeches proclaiming him the defender of the common worker. The tribute to Broderick was effusive and he was praised in local news-papers. Not only did the New York reception make Gwin uncomfortable, but it rekindled deep feelings of hatred between the two men.
The Lecompton Compromise, the Election of 1859 and the End of California's Democratic Party
The looming specter of the American Civil War found its way into Golden State politics. Since September 9, 1850, when California became the thirty first state, the argument over slavery created deep divisions. As the Chivalry and Tammany Hall Democrats did battle with one another there was a growing uneasiness over the peculiar institution.
In 1858, the debate over the Lecompton Compromise not only split the nation over the future of slavery but it tore California politics apart. The Lecompton issue was a strange one. It was a debate in Kansas where the pro-slavery faction took over the constitutional convention and attempted to establish slavery in a free state. The future of slavery in Kansas quickly erupted into a national issue and pro-slavery California Senator Gwin was one of its staunchest defenders. Naturally, Senator Broderick opposed the slavery faction.
What made the so-called Lecompton Compromise a strange one was that the pro-slavery faction had no chance of carrying the day. Free Soil party Kansas citizens were in the majority, but it was the argument over slavery that mattered. Through a piece of legislative trickery, the pro-slavery faction pushed through language that protected the rights of Kansas slave owners. This infuriated the free state advocates and most Kansas citizens boycotted the election. The issue was not so much slavery as it was the right of slave owners to maintain their property.
So Senator Gwin put himself in the forefront of those in the Golden State who defended the peculiar institution. In California, while there were only a small number of slave owners, the Secesh Democrats caused the Lecompton attitude to triumph in the Golden State. While slavery was illegal, a California Supreme Court decision, the Perkins case, recognized the property rights of slave owners. Gwin's staunch support of slavery tore the local Democratic party apart and doomed their future electoral prospects. The politics of prejudice turned the voters toward the newly established Republican party and a host of other third party movements promising reform. In 1861, railroad mogul Leland Stanford became the first Republican governor, thereby dampening the future of Democratic politics.
The end of the California Democratic party resulted from the air of violence and recrimination permeating the state. During the electoral campaign of 1859, the Lecompton Democrats won more offices than Broderick's Tammany Hall Democrats. The turmoil surrounding California politics created random violence when Chief Justice David S. Terry, a candidate for reelection to the California Supreme Court, delivered a strongly worded speech in which he supported the Lecompton Democrats; there was talk of a duel. The speech was a veiled threat against the Tammany Hall Democrats. After Senator Broderick read an account of the speech he called Justice Terry a "disturbed miserable wretch." Taking offense at Broderick's comments, Terry and Broderick exchanged a series of childish notes. Then Terry challenged Broderick to a duel.
Although the duel was outlawed by state law, this didn't prevent the newspapers from reporting it in great depth. After a number of letters were exchanged between Broderick and Terry, the Lake House ranch in a ravine near the Pacific Ocean was selected as the dueling site. This area was just beyond the San Mateo county line and it guaranteed little law enforcement interest. To most observers it seemed that Broderick had the advantage because the duel rules stated that guns had to be fired at the count of two and not three. This made Justice Terry's backers nervous because Broderick had the reputation as a quick shot. There was no need to worry as Broderick's gun fired prematurely and Terry shot him. Someone in the crowd shouted, "This is murder." There was a controversy over whether or not someone had jammed Broderick's gun.
Broderick's death on the field of honor by a Southern gentleman cast aspersion upon the political process. The duel brought an end to California Democratic politics. The citizenry was disgusted with the political violence and the disregard for state dueling laws. The newspapers began denouncing dueling and condemning those who engaged in it. The San Francisco Bulletin editorialized that Terry "should be marked as another Cain." This attitude hastened the destruction of California's Democratic party.
By 1859, Senator Gwin returned to Washington D. C. with the knowledge that his career was over and his party was in shambles. His brief tenure in the United States Senate was ending. Gwin told close friends that he would not stand for reelection. The coming of the American Civil War and the rise of Union sentiment in the Golden State finally brought an end to Senator Gwin's tumultuous career.
What had Senator Gwin contributed to California history? He had almost single-handedly established the politics of prejudice. The view from the Protestant, white, middle class was one that condemned the ethnic influx, ridiculed the Chinese presence, looked askance at California's Hispanic past and was suspicious of the wrong type of Catholic immigrants. Rather than being quickly forgotten, the political ideas that Gwin championed remained an integral part of California society. In the mid-1870s the Workingmen's Party motto: "The Chinese Must Go" and Gwin's message took on a more popular tone. By 1900, Progressive Republican Hiram W. Johnson based a portion of his politics upon anti Chinese statements and he won two gubernatorial elections. Almost eighty years later, Governor Pete Wilson, in a very sophisticated manner, suggested that immigrants were destroying the fabric of California society. Like Johnson, Wilson was elected to a two term governorship employing the politics of prejudice well into the late 1990s.
It was political demagoguery that was Gwin's main contribution. He was the first in a line long of California politicos who would use the threat of another people, another culture or another viewpoint to rally the American minded behind the politics of prejudice. Politicians found that Californians responded politically to fear, and thus Gwin wrote the book on this political tactic.
(Copyrighted: This chapter is used with permission from the author Dr. Howard Dewitt.)