Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/August 1880/The Kearney Agitation in California
ALTHOUGH something has been done toward the scientific treatment of history and of the larger facts of sociology, the conception of the reign of law amid human actions lags far behind the recognition of law in the material universe, and the disposition to ascribe social phenomena to special causes is yet almost as common as it is in the infancy of knowledge so to explain physical phenomena.
We no longer attribute an eclipse to a malevolent dragon; when a blight falls on our vines, or a murrain on our cattle, we set to work with microscope and chemical tests, instead of imputing it to the anger of a supernatural power; we have begun to trace the winds and fore-tell the weather, instead of seeing in their changes the designs of Providence or the work of witch or warlock. Yet as to social phenomena, infantile explanations similar to those we have thus discarded still largely suffice us. One has but to read our newspapers, to attend political meetings, or to listen to common talk, to see that very many people, who have in large measure risen to scientific conceptions of the linked sequence of the material universe, have not yet, in their views of social facts and movements, got past the idea of the little child who, if shown a picture of battle or siege, will insist on being told which are the good and which the bad men.
As the conductors of this magazine evidently realize the importance of popularizing in their applications to social questions the scientific spirit and scientific method, which in other departments have achieved such wonders, I propose in this paper to say something of a series of events in California that has attracted much attention. In an article such as this, I can, however, do little more than correct some misapprehensions and put the main facts in such relations that their bearing may be seen. Much that would conduce to complete intelligibility must, from the limit of space, be omitted.
What seems to be the general idea of these events is well suggested by one of Nast's cartoons—a hideous figure, girt with revolver and sword, broadly badged as "communist," brandishing in one hand the torch of anarchy, and in the other exhibiting a scroll on which is inscribed: "Mob Law. The New Constitution of California. Other people's homes, savings, land, property, lives, capital, and honest labor, all common stock in the universal coöperative brotherhood." In the distance a group of workmen stand idle and cowering, while underneath is the device, "Constant Vigilance (Committee) is the price of liberty in San Francisco."
While such ideas are but exaggerated reflections of the utterances of San Francisco papers, they are wide of the truth. There has not been in San Francisco any outbreak of "foreign communism," nor yet has there been in the workingman's movement, or in its results, anything socialistic or agrarian. This movement has in reality been inspired by ordinary political aims, and what has been going on in California derives its real interest from its relation to general facts and its illustration of general tendencies.
While there has been much in these events to recall to the cool observer the saying of Carlyle, "There are twenty-eight millions of people in Great Britain, mostly fools," it is yet a mistake to regard California as a community widely differing from more Eastern States. I am, in fact, inclined rather to look upon California as a typical American State, and San Francisco as a typical American city. It would be difficult to name any State that in resources, climate, and industries comes nearer to representing the whole Union, while, as all the other States have contributed to her population in something like relative proportions, general American characteristics remain, as local peculiarities are in the attrition worn off. There is, of course, a greater mobility of society than in older communities, and this may give rise to a certain excitability and fickleness. But, everywhere, the mobility of population increases with the relative growth of cities and the increase of facilities of movement. And, in fact, the newness and plasticity of society in such a State as California permits general tendencies to show themselves more quickly than in older sections, just as in the younger and more flexible parts of the tree the direction of the wind is most easily seen.
Though yet comparatively a small city, San Francisco is in character more metropolitan than any other American city except New York, and is, to the territory and population of which she is the commercial, industrial, financial, and political center, even more of a center than is New York. San Francisco has no rival. For long distances her bay is spoken of as "the bay," and she is not merely the greatest city, but "the city."
And, though the European element is largely represented in San Francisco, it is, I am inclined to think, more thoroughly Americanized than in the Eastern cities. The reason I take to be, not merely that it is drawn from the more active and intelligent of the immigration that sets upon the Atlantic shore, and has generally only reached California after a longer or shorter sojourn in more Eastern States, but also that the American population having been drawn from all sections of the country, and from the early days the whole immigration having been rather of individuals than of colonies or families, the admixture has been more thorough, and, except as to the Chinese, that polarization which divides a mixed population into distinct communities has not so readily taken place.
Contrary, too, to the reputation which she seems to have got, San Francisco is really an orderly city. Although the police force has been doubled within the past two years, it still bears a smaller proportion to population than in other large American cities. Chinamen go about the streets with far more security than I imagine they will go about any Eastern city when they become proportionately as numerous; and, after all said of hoodlumism, there is little obtrusive rowdyism and few street fights—a fact which may in part result from the once universal practice of carrying arms.
Nor has communism or socialism (understanding by these terms the desire for fundamental social changes) made, up to this time, much progress in California, for the presence of the Chinese has largely engrossed the attention of the laboring classes, offering what has seemed to them a sufficient explanation of the fall of wages and difficulty of finding employment. Only the more thoughtful have heeded the fact that in other parts of the world where there are no Chinamen the condition of the laboring classes is even worse than in California. With the masses the obvious evils of Chinese competition have excluded all thought of anything else. And in this anti-Chinese feeling there is, of course, nothing that can properly be deemed socialistic or communistic. On the contrary, socialists and communists are more tolerant of the Chinese than any other class of those who feel or are threatened by their competition. For not only is there, at the bottom of what is called socialism and communism, the great idea of the equality and brotherhood of men, but they who look to changes in the fundamental institutions of society as the only means for improving the condition of the masses necessarily regard Chinese immigration as a minor evil, if in a proper social state it could be any evil at all. Nor is there in this anti-Chinese feeling anything essentially foreign. Those who talk about opposition to the Chinese being anti-American shut their eyes to a great many facts if they mean anything more than that it ought to be anti-American.
In short, I am unable to see, in the conditions from which this agitation sprang, anything really peculiar to California. I can not regard the anti-Chinese sentiment as really peculiar, because it must soon arise in the East should Chinese immigration continue; and because, in the connection in which we are considering it, its nature and effects do not materially differ from those which elsewhere are aroused by other causes. The main fact which underlies all this agitation is popular discontent; and, where there is popular discontent, if there is not one Jonah, another will be found. Thus, over and over again, popular discontent has fixed upon the Jews, and among ourselves there is a large class who make the "ignorant foreigner" the same sort of a scapegoat for all political demoralization and corruption.
There has been in California growing social and political discontent, but the main causes of this do not materially differ from those which elsewhere exist. Some of the factors of discontent may have attained greater development in California than in older sections, but I am inclined to think this is merely because in the newer States general tendencies are quicker seen. For instance, the concentration of the whole railroad system in the hands of one close corporation is remarkable in California, but there is clearly a general tendency to such concentration, which is year by year steadily uniting railroad management all over the country.
The "grand culture" of machine-worked fields, which calls for large gangs of men at certain seasons, setting them adrift when the crop is gathered, and which is so largely instrumental in filling San Francisco every winter with unemployed men, is certainly the form to which American agriculture generally tends, and is developing in the new Northwest even more rapidly than in California.
Nor yet am I sure that the characteristics of the press, to which San Franciscans largely attribute this agitation, are not characteristics to which the newspaper press generally tends. Certain it is that the development of the newspaper is in a direction which makes it less and less the exponent of ideas and advocate of principles, and more and more a machine for money-making.
There is, however, a peculiar local factor which I am persuaded has not been without importance. This is an intangible thing a mere memory. But such intangible things are often most potent. Just as the memory of previous revolutions has disposed the discontented Parisian to think of barricades and the march to the Hôtel de Ville, so has the memory of the Vigilance Committee accustomed San Franciscans to think of extra-legal associations and methods as the last but sovereign resort. These ideas have been current among a different class from that which mans the Paris barricades. The Vigilance Committee of 1856, as most of the other California Vigilance Committees, was organized and led by the mercantile class, and in that class its memories have survived. The wild talk of the "sand-lot" about hanging official thieves and renegade representatives, and the armed organizations of workingmen, which have seemed at the East like the importations of foreign communism, are in large measure but reflections and exaggerations of ideas current in San Francisco counting-rooms and bank parlors. And it must be remembered, in estimating the influence of this idea, that the Vigilance Committee of 1856 was not merely successful in its immediate purposes, but gave birth to a political organization that for many years thereafter managed the local government and disposed of all its large prizes.
Yet, acting with and running through this, has been, I think, a wider and more generally diffused feeling—the disposition toward sharp repressive measures which is aroused among the wealthy classes by symptoms of dissatisfaction and aggression among the poor. That this feeling has of late years been growing throughout the Union many indications show.
Be all this as it may, the impulse that began these California—agitations came from the East. For the genesis of Kearneyism, or rather for the shock that set in motion forces that social and political discontent had been generating, we must look to Pittsburgh and to the great railroad strikes of 1877.
In California, where a similar strike was about beginning—for the railroad company had given notice of a like reduction of wages—these strikes excited an interest that became intense when the telegraph told of the burning and fighting in Pittsburgh. The railroad magnates, becoming alarmed, rescinded their notice, but in the mean time a meeting to express sympathy with the Eastern strikers had been called for the sand-lot in front of the new City Hall. This meeting was called in response to a request of Eastern labor papers, but happened to fall amid the excitement caused by the Pittsburgh riot. The over-zealous authorities, catching, perhaps, the alarm that had induced the railroad managers to rescind their reduction, arrested men who were carrying placards advertising the meeting. In the excitement, wild reports flew through the city that an incendiary meeting was to be held, and an attempt made to burn the Pacific Mail Docks and Chinese quarter. The meeting was held, for the authorities soon saw that there was no reason for preventing it. There was no talk of lawlessness or allusion to the Chinese on the part of the promoters of the meeting or their speakers, but the excitement showed itself by the raising, on the outskirts of the immense crowd, of the cry, "To Chinatown!" a movement promptly stopped by the police; and in remoter districts some Chinese wash-houses were raided by gangs of boys. The papers—sensational to the last degree—made the most of this the next morning, and, in the excitement that the Eastern news had created, a meeting, held in the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, organized a Committee of Public Safety, with the President of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 at its head, the hint being probably given by a telegram that the citizens of Pittsburgh had restored order by organizing a force armed with base-ball bats. In San Francisco the pick-handle was chosen instead, and for some days a large number of men so armed perambulated the streets. Space will not permit, nor is it necessary, to tell the story of this "battle of the kegs." Ridiculous in some of its aspects, it was serious in others. There was not the slightest necessity for this extra-legal organization and parade; but, while San Francisco was represented to the world as a city on the verge of riot and anarchy, a strong feeling of class irritation was engendered.
Among those who carried a pick-handle in this "pick-handle brigade," as it was christened, was an Irish drayman, who has since become famous. Dennis Kearney, a man of strict temperance in all except speech, had built up a good business in draying for mercantile houses, and accumulated, besides his horses and drays, a comfortable little property. Up to this time he had taken no part in politics, except to parade in torchlight processions as a "Hayes Invincible," but for some two years had been a constant attendant at a sort of free debating club, held on Sunday afternoons, and styled the Lyceum of Self Culture, where he had gradually learned to speak in public, though the temperance which he practiced and preached as to liquor and tobacco did not extend to opinions or their expression. He was noticeable not merely for the bitter vulgarity of his attacks upon all forms of religion, especially that in which he had been reared, the Catholic, but for the venom with which he abused the working classes, and took on every occasion what passed for the capitalistic side. With all the vehemence with which he has since inveighed against "thieving capitalists" and "lecherous bondholders," he denounced the laziness and extravagance of workingmen, declared that wages were far too high, and defended Chinese immigration. Whether, with the suddenness not unnatural to such extremists, Kearney really changed his opinions while carrying his pick-handle, the change being hastened by some recent losses in stocks, or whether he merely realized what political possibilities lay in the general feeling of discontent and irritation, and how easily in times. of excitement men may be organized, makes little difference. He laid down his pick-handle, to put his drays in charge of a brother, and go into politics.
His first appearance in his new vocation attracted no attention. The Safety Committee excitement passed immediately into the excitement of the impending legislative and municipal election. Besides the regular parties, a number of independent organizations or "sideshows" were in the field, many of them consisting only of a high sounding name and an Executive Committee, who found their account in nominating candidates from the principal tickets and assessing them for election expenses, candidates who were spending money heavily, preferring to pay something to get on even the most insignificant ticket rather than risk the loss of the few votes that might determine their election. Amid all these "parties," and "councils," and "clubs," the organization of a "Workingmen's Trade and Labor Union," with one J. G. Day as president and one D. Kearney as secretary, attracted no attention. This new organization, which, besides a president and secretary, boasted also a treasurer, stretched out a canvas bearing its name, and "resoluted" upon the necessity of "patriotism and integrity in the public offices from the lowest to the highest," calling upon the laboring classes to unite "to elect candidates in whom they can put their trust, and who are above suspicion." This being done, the new organization, by its president and secretary, proceeded in the usual way to ascertain which of the principal candidates were most above suspicion; but it printed no ticket, this particular movement to secure "patriotism and integrity in the public offices" winding up on the night before election in a row in which the treasurer and sergeant-at-arms vainly endeavored to make the president and secretary "come to a divide" on the amount collected, which they charged was between one and two thousand dollars.
But the master spirit of the ephemeral organization that thus unnoticed closed its life of weeks was no ordinary "price club man," who when one election is over retires from politics until the next approaches. The knot of men who had called the meeting of sympathy with the Eastern strikers had afterward organized a workingman's party and run a few candidates with a view to the future, but their intentions were brought to naught by the more energetic and audacious Kearney, who went to work without delay. On the Sunday after the election he again attended, for the last time, the Lyceum of Self-Culture, and, to the astonishment and amusement of the men whose ideas about the rights and wrongs of the working classes he had been berating, told them that they were a set of fools and blatherskites, and that he now proposed to start in with the demand of "bread or blood," and organize a party that would amount to something. The first move was a meeting to consider the Chinese question, at which a speech was made by a highly respected and prominent citizen; but when Kearney, who officiated as secretary, got the stand, he dealt out some more highly seasoned mental stimulant by reading a description of the burning of Moscow as a suggestion of what might be in store for San Francisco. Then appropriating the name of "Workingman's party, Day and Kearney took to the sand-lot, enlisting some other speakers. Though violent, these harangues would have attracted little attention, and in fact the movement might have been choked in infancy (for several rival factions started up, and opposition platforms were erected within a few feet of each other), but for a powerful ally of just the kind needed.
The two San Francisco papers of largest circulation are the "Call" and "Chronicle," between whom intense rivalry has long existed. The "Call" has the greater circulation and more profitable business, drawn largely from the working classes. It is a good newspaper, but its editorial management is timorous to a ridiculous degree. The "Chronicle," whose principal proprietor recently lost his life in a tragedy growing out of these occurrences, is best described as a "live paper" of the most vigorous and unscrupulous kind. As though a tacit partnership had been formed, Kearney began to call upon workingmen to stop the "Call" and take the "Chronicle," while the "Chronicle" on its part advertised the meetings in the highest style of the art, giving Kearney the greatest prominence and detailing its best reporters to manufacture and dress up his speeches. Thus advertised, the meetings began to draw.
California Street Hill is crowned by the palaces of the railroad nabobs—men who a few years ago were selling coal-oil or retailing dry goods, but who now count their wealth by the scores of millions. To complete the block which one of these had selected for his palace, an undertaker's homestead was necessary. The undertaker wanted more than the nabob was willing to give, and the latter cut short the negotiation by inclosing the undertaker's house on three sides with an immense board fence, probably the highest on the Pacific coast, if not in the world. This veritable coffin, which shuts out view and sun from the undertaker's little home, and which the common law, now abrogated in California by the code, would not have permitted, is one of the most striking features of the Hill.
When, with the assistance of the "Chronicle," the meetings had begun to draw crowds, largely composed of unemployed men, who after the harvest begin to collect in San Francisco, and of a class that of late years has become numerous, the professional beggars or strikers, a meeting was called for the top of California Street Hill, where the nabobs were regaled by the cheers of a surging crowd, when it was proposed by one of the speakers—a pamphleteer and newspaper writer well known in California for many years, but who neither before nor since took any other part in the agitation—to celebrate Thanksgiving by pulling down the big fence, if not removed by that time. This was too much: the railroad magnates were frightened—even the "Chronicle" demanded the arrest of the agitators; a sudden energy was infused into the authorities, and they, with the proposer of the fence-destruction, were arrested on charges of riot.
That these arrests were ill advised the sequel proves. And it is to be remarked that in all Kearney's wild declamation there has been no direct incitement to violence. He has talked about wading through blood, hanging official thieves, burning the Chinese quarter, and generally "raising Cain," but it has always been with an "if." He has never come any nearer to actually proposing any of these things than Daniel O'Connell did to proposing armed resistance to the English Government. Nor yet is it easy to point to anything which Kearney has said that is really more violent or incendiary than things said before with impunity. It was not Dennis Kearney, but a Republican leader, a man of wealth, ability, and influence, who has held high position, and was this year a prominent member of the National Republican Convention, who first proposed that the Pacific Mail steamers should be burned at their docks if they did not cease to bring Chinese; it was a bitter opponent of Kearneyism who, amid thunders of applause, in the largest hall of the city, first suggested that the Chinese quarter should be purified with fire and planted with grass; while as to bitter denunciations of parties, classes, and individuals, and prognostications of violence and calamity if this, that, or the other was or was not done, there is probably nothing that Kearney or his fellows have said that could not be matched from previous political speeches or newspaper articles. That dangers may sometimes arise from an abuse of the liberty of speech may be true, but it is so exceedingly delicate a thing to attempt to draw any line short of the direct incitement to specific illegal action, that the only course consistent with the genius of our institutions is to leave such abuses to their own natural remedy. It is only where restrictions are imposed that mere words become dangerous to social order, just as it is only when gunpowder is confined that it becomes explosive. Had the energy of the authorities been reserved for any lawless act, and these agitators been left to agitate to their full content, except so far as they might interfere with the free use of the thoroughfares, any momentary interest or excitement would have soon died out, and the contempt which follows swelling words without action would soon have left them powerless. But the timidity which attaches to great wealth gained by questionable means, and at once arrogant in its power and keenly sensitive of the jealousy with which it is regarded, renders its possessors, surrounded as they must be by sycophantic advisers, insensible to reason in moments of excitement. "The thief doth fear each bush an officer." And the man who from the windows of a two-million-dollar mansion looks down upon his fellow citizens begging for the chance to work for a dollar a day can not fail to have at times some idea of the essential injustice of this state of things break through his complacency, while murmurings of discontent assume vague shapes of menace against which fear urges him to strike, though reason and prudence would hold back a blow which can only irritate. The dangers to social order that arise from the glaring inequalities of wealth come as much from this direction as from the discontent of the less fortunate classes. It was this feeling that, organizing the "pick-handle brigade," prepared the way and gave the hint for agitation; it was this feeling that, now striking blindly through the authorities, gave to that agitation dignity and power.
More efficient means to provoke a public sentiment in favor of the agitators could not have been taken. Not only were the speakers arrested on charges which would not bear legal scrutiny, but new warrants were sworn out as quickly as bail was offered. A pledge made by the agitators in prison, to hold no more outdoor meetings and use no more incendiary language if the charges against them were dismissed, was refused, and special counsel were employed to prosecute. Outside the prison the same drunken spirit of arbitrary repression showed itself, not only by driving crowds from the streets, but by breaking up indoor meetings and installing captains of police as censors.
The reaction was swift and strong, but it was not at first heeded. The charges against the agitators were dismissed by the judge before whom they were brought, but fresh charges were made, which were dismissed by juries. An ordinance was rushed through the Board of Supervisors, under which it has never been dared to bring an action; a ridiculously oppressive law was hurried through the Legislature, which was similarly a dead letter, and which at the next session was repealed without a dissenting voice and hardly a dissenting vote.
These impotent attempts at repression produced their natural result. The new party was fairly started, brought into prominence and importance by the intemperance which had sought to crush it.
The feeling on the Chinese question has long been so strong in California as to give certain victory to any party that could fully utilize it. But the difficulty in the way of making political capital of this feeling has been to get resistance, since all parties were willing to take the strongest anti-Chinese ground. But the fear that the agitators had evidently inspired, the effort to put them down, served as such resistance; and, though all parties were anti-Chinese, the party they were endeavoring to start became at once the anti-Chinese party in the eyes of those who were bitterest and strongest in their feeling, while it at the same time became an expression, though rudely and vaguely, of all sorts of discontent. It was evident that it would be a political power for at least one election. The lower strata of ward politicians went rushing into it as a good chance for office; the "Chronicle," which, at the first symptom of reaction, had redoubled its services, placarded the State with resolutions of the new party asking workingmen to stop the "Call." That paper, losing heavily in subscribers, quietly began to outdo the "Chronicle" in its reports and its puffery. Other papers, recognized as organs of interests popularly regarded with dislike, did their utmost by denunciation to keep Kearney in the foreground. Republican politicians saw in the movement a division of the Democratic vote worth fostering; Democratic politicians saw in it an element of future success, on the right side of which the political wise man would keep; the municipal authorities, remembering coming elections, passed from persecution to obsequiousness; while the great railroad interest either came to a tacit understanding, or had its agents install themselves in the new organization, using it to help their friends and keep out their enemies, as they aim to use, and generally succeed in using, all parties, and men of high social standing did not hesitate, when it served their purpose, to furnish points and matter for sand-lot harangues, or to speak at meetings which Kearney and his gang had captured; for, until they met a very warm reception at a Democratic meeting, they arrogated to themselves the right to interrupt and "bulldoze" any meeting that did not suit them.
Kearney had quickly come to the head of the movement, changing his first place of secretary for that of president shortly after taking to the sand-lot, and having, by the time he and his companions emerged from jail in triumph, got so well to the head as to become in the popular eye its representative and embodiment. lie showed great address in keeping the place. The organization which he managed to give the new party was admirably designed for this purpose. The weekly assemblage on the sand-lot, where anybody could shout and vote, was recognized as the great parliament and plebiscitum, and in the State conventions, in which the country as well as the city clubs were represented, the supremacy of the city clubs was provided for by the interdiction of proxies. As president of the party (something new in American politics, but an idea probably borrowed from the Committee of Public Safety), Kearney was anything but a mere figure-head. He has seemed to see, as clearly as any philosophical student of history has seen, the true spring and foundation of arbitrary power—the connection between Cæsar and the proletariate.
He appeared on all occasions in rough working-dress; he announced that he would take no office, but, as soon as he had led the people to a victory, he would go back to his dray, and must in the mean time be supported by collections, for which he passed around the hat at every meeting. These things, the style of his oratory, the prominence he had attained, his energy, tact, and temperance, gave him command of that floating element which will travel around to the most meetings and do the loudest shouting. And, commanding this, he commanded his party.
Presiding at the sand-lot, he claimed the right to say who should speak and to put all questions, and, traveling around from club to club, accompanied by a crowd of admiring followers, who voted just as the Parisian rabble did in the Revolutionary clubs and conventions, he took possession wherever he went. Availing himself of the feeling against politicians and political chicanery, he declared parliamentary law to be political trickery, and put motions as he pleased, or didn't put them at all, and for him to denounce any mutineer as a politician was to doom him to immediate "firing out." This was the fate, one after the other, of all the men who had begun with him the agitation, and of all those who from time to time began to gain any prominence which might
endanger his supremacy. By a single coup d'état he swept out the whole Central Committee the moment they began to show a disposition to have some voice in the management of the party, alleging, as was naturally the fact, that they were candidates for office. No one was allowed to enter who had talent or influence enough to become a rival; no one was allowed to speak who would not constantly belaud "our noble leader"; and the men whom he selected as his lieutenants and allowed to come to the front were, without exception, not only men who accepted of these conditions, but men who for some reason or other stood in such relation to the controlling element of the party that he could at any time he chose turn on them and fire them out. By this denunciation of politicians, by thus striking down every head that raised itself in his organization, he not only appealed to prejudice and jealousies, but to the personal interest and ambition of the club membership. The political hewers of wood and drawers of water, who made up the clubs, flattered themselves with the idea that they were the men of whom sheriffs, and supervisors, and school-directors, and Senators, and Assembly-men were to be made, and they brought to the new party and to the support of Kearney all the enthusiasm which such a hope called forth.
It may seem strange that a party thus constituted and led should poll such a heavy vote. But in our large cities, and progressively in the country as a whole, the active managing portion of a party bears a very small proportion to the vote which it polls. In New York or Philadelphia, as in San Francisco, but a handful of men make the tickets between which, on election-day, the majority of voters must choose. So in this case the heavy vote came from people who never joined the clubs or visited the sand-lot—from people who were so utterly disgusted with the workings and corruptions of old parties as to welcome "anything for a change."
And this feeling was greatly intensified by a train of occurrences which called attention to the prevailing corruption. Kearney's tirades against daylight robbers and official thieves had a basis of fact. To say nothing of bank-failures and stock-swindles, it came to light that brokers were engaged in selling positions on the police; that the questions upon which the teachers in the public schools are appointed and promoted were regular articles of merchandise; and that, running through successive administrations, the most enormous stealing had been going on in street improvements. Three important municipal officials committed suicide, one after another, and, behind all that came to light, there was a mass of corruption never to be developed, for justice in San Francisco, as in some other places, seems stricken with palsy in presence of rich criminals and powerful rings.
The only remedy which the new party offered for this state of things was the usual remedy, "Elect honest men to office, we naming the honest men;" but in the beginning Kearney proposed the additional safeguard of hanging officials who broke their pledges. And, at the first election in which the new party engaged—to fill a vacancy in the legislative representation of the strong Republican county of Alameda, where the railroad interest is very powerful, and the population consist largely of San Francisco business men—the workingmen's candidate, a railroad employee named Bones, went around with a halter about his neck in token of his acceptance of this condition. lie was elected, took his seat, and immediately began voting just as he had promised not to. There was enough discussion of how he should be hung to make him ask the protection of the Senate, but there was no hanging. This ended faith in that guarantee, but not in pledges, the municipal officials subsequently elected by the workingmen in San Francisco being pledged to draw only half salaries—a pledge which after election they one and all ignored as easily as before election they had taken it.
But, before the feelings which had been aroused by the events of which I speak could spend themselves in a general election of officers, there came, in June, 1878, the election for delegates to a Constitutional Convention. This whole subject of the new Constitution of California is extremely interesting and suggestive, but I can only allude to some main features. The large corporate interests took advantage of the situation, by starting a movement for a "Non-Partisan" ticket, on which, of course, they got a good representation. If they did not also engineer the Workingmen's nominations, they could hardly have done better, as these consisted generally of men utterly ignorant and inexperienced. The "Non-Partisans" carried the State at large, the Workingmen San Francisco and some other centers where they had organizations. The Convention itself was vaguely divided into three groups: first, the lawyers, who largely represented corporation interests; second, the "Grangers," who represented the ideas and prejudices of the farmers and landholders; third, the Workingmen, bent on making capital for the new party, and desirous of doing something for the laboring classes, without the slightest idea of how to do it. But there was nothing in the Convention like agrarianism or socialism, or radical reform of any kind. The lawyers looked out pretty well for their special interests; the Workingmen, satisfied with some clauses about the Chinese, etc. (not worth the paper on which they were written), readily fell in with the Grangers, imagining that, in piling taxation upon capital and all its shadows, they were helping the poor by taxing the rich. The resulting instrument is a sort of mixture of constitution, code, stump-speech, and mandamus. But it is anything but agrarian or communistic, for it intrenches vested rights—especially in land—more thoroughly than before, and interposes barriers to future radicalism by a provision in regard to amendments which it will require almost a revolution to break through. It is anything but a workingman's Constitution: it levies a poll-tax without exemption, disfranchises a considerable part of the floating laboring vote, introduces a property qualification, prevents the opening of public works in emergencies, and in various ways, which workingmen, even in their present stage of enlightenment, may easily see, sacrifices the interests of the laboring classes, as well as the capitalist, to what the land-owners regard as their interests, while in other respects its changes, which are in the same direction as other late constitutions, are out of the line of true reform.
But anything like calm discussion of the work of the Convention became impossible. The moneyed classes of San Francisco, taking alarm at the taxation clauses, raised a fund of some hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat the new Constitution, which was placed in the hands of the head lobbyists of the railroad company, and a regular bureau opened, while threats of the discharge of employees and withdrawal of patronage as penalty for voting for it were freely made. If, as believed by many, large special interests were engaged in the support of the new Constitution, they had the intelligence to work quietly. On the surface it seemed as if every tyrannous and corrupt influence was united for its defeat. In the torrent of passion which raged, it is difficult to say whether those who opposed or those who advocated the new Constitution said the most absurd things. On the one side it was denounced as a "communistic" instrument which would bring every calamity, on the other it was advocated as "the Magna Charta of the laboring classes." The real agrarians and communists, if these terms be applied to men who desire fundamental changes, opposed the new Constitution all they could. But the fact that enormous sums were being spent to defeat it, subjected every one who opposed it to the imputation of being the hireling of anti-popular interests. And so, with the solid vote of the farmers, aided largely by the vote of those who lose most by it, the new Constitution was carried.
In this contest the Workingmen had become, as in the Convention, a sort of tail to the Grangers' kite, and Kearney had to a great extent been forced into the background, while a number of old "war-horses" came to the front. The "Chronicle," which had made a vigorous fight for the new Constitution, saw in this combination an opportunity to make a new party of its own which should fill all the offices under the new instrument, and Kearney was given to understand that he might now retire on his laurels. This he very vigorously declined to do, and war between the late allies commenced, the "Chronicle" printing with little immediate effect long exposures of the man it had so much lauded, and Kearney denouncing the New Constitutionalists as " Honorable Bilks," a name which derived its significance from the number of ex-Honorables in their ranks, and which stuck so tightly that they even began to speak of themselves as "the Bilks." As showing how much agrarianism there is in the new Constitution, the candidate of that party for Governor, an ardent supporter of the instrument, is the largest farmer in the State, the owner of something like a quarter of a million acres!
Both Republicans and "Workingmen ran State tickets, while the Democratic party degenerated into a sort of "price club," ready to trade nominations with anybody who would make a combination. In this three-cornered contest the Republicans carried the State by a plurality, except where the other parties were united on the same candidate, and except as to San Francisco. Here the Workingmen's ticket was headed by the Rev. Dr. Kalloch, a leading Baptist clergyman well known at the East, and of great ability as a stump-speaker, who in the beginning of these events had the largest Chinese Sunday-school in the city, and preached the virtues of dealing with mobs by loading with grape and firing low, but who, when the movement assumed political force, shut up his Chinese Sunday-school and preached in such a different key that he completely captured the Workingmen, and was finally (though not by Kearney's wish) nominated by them for Mayor. The crack of De Young's pistol from behind the curtain of a coupé, fired Dr. Kalloch into the mayoralty and gave the Workingmen several municipal officers and a number of members of the Legislature, besides such candidates as had united their nomination with that of other parties. But about none of the men thus carried into office in whole or in part by the Workingmen's vote is there anything socialistic or communistic. They are merely ordinary office-seekers who took advantage of the Workingmen's organization as giving a certain vote, and who, though generally they would have endorsed communism had it been popular, would have done so no quicker than they would have endorsed imperialism or Mormonism or spiritualism or vegetarianism.
After this election, and during Kearney's absence in the East last winter, began a new movement which, however, did not emanate from the Workingmen's party proper, and was led by new men—the meeting and marching of the unemployed, demanding of large employers the discharge of the Chinese. The alarm this excited, until the advance of the season and the consequent demand for laborers in the interior had lessened temporarily the number of unemployed, led to the reorganization of a Committee of Safety, which enrolled a good many names and spent some money in paying the militia to guard their arsenals, but made no parades. To this organization, however, I do not attribute the defeat of the Workingmen in the March election in San Francisco for a joint Senator and freeholders to frame a charter. It was in the natural course of things that the Workingmen should be beaten, even though the Democratic organization endorsed their candidate for Senator and nominated no freeholders. For a party without national affiliations or definite aims must die with its first success, and this is peculiarly a party that has been only kept alive by the mistakes of its opponents.
That Kearneyism had run its course was clearly evident in San Francisco after this election. The new Constitution has proved a bitter disappointment to those who expected so much from it; the officials elected by Workingmen have proved no particular improvement; disintegration was fast showing itself in the clubs, and Kearney was rapidly losing his popularity and influence with the class that had followed him. But a perceptible check was given to this decline when Kearney was sent to jail and fined a thousand dollars for an offense ordinarily punished by a trivial fine when punished at all. Thus made a victim, Kearney every day he staid in jail was gaining in popularity and strength as he had before, and when released by the Supreme Court was drawn in triumph through the streets on one of his own drays.
This brief sketch, though necessarily very imperfect, will accomplish all I intend if it makes the general facts and course of this agitation sufficiently intelligible to enable thoughtful men to see its true relations and real meaning. That a rude, uncultured drayman, with no previous influence over any class, should acquire such notoriety and wield such power, that a great city should so long have been kept in a state of excitement, are phenomena which more imperatively demand that careful and dispassionate attention which we call scientific than any conjuncture of the planets or appearance of spots on the sun. For, while we know that during unnumbered ages this great celestial machine has pursued its orderly movements, we also know that, while day has followed night and harvest succeeded seed-time, human society has been subject to the most terrible perturbations and cataclysms. And what has been going on in California betokens the social unrest and discontent from which destructive forces are generated.
That these events do not spring from exotic or abnormal causes seems to me clear. This agitation is not the result of the importation of foreign ideas, but the natural result of social and political conditions toward which the country as a whole steadily tends, and its development has been on lines strictly American. Kearney is not a type of the fanatical reformer, but of the politician, and possibly in a rough sort of way, not of the "coming Cæsar" of whom we hear so much, but of the real Cæsar whom we may one day evoke; the workingman's movement has been essentially nothing more than an ordinary political movement growing from and taking advantage of popular discontent; while the new Constitution of California, destitute as it is of any shadow of reform which will lessen social inequalities or purify politics, exhibits the same tendencies as the newer constitutions of other States.
That Kearney or any considerable number of his followers ever seriously thought of an appeal to force, either to get rid of the Chinese or for any other purpose, I have not the slightest idea. The workingmen's military companies, of which a few were formed, would not have been at any time a flea-bite to the strong and well-appointed militia of the city, and were merely an amusement—a sort of set-off and imitation of the Committee of Public Safety. And it must be remembered that these vague suggestions of violence not only, as I have before said, secured resistance which turned latent force into political power, but the agitation did considerably check Chinese employment and immigration, while the passage of an anti-Chinese bill by Congress (though this bill was denounced at the time by Kearney), was claimed as one of its results.
And though capital has been frightened, at times seriously frightened, by this agitation, it must not be thought that this fright has been shared by all the property classes. On the contrary, the inner and influential circle of Kearney's backers and supporters have been men of more or less property, and large moneyed interests have sought to use the movement. Neither in platforms nor candidates has there been any leaning to the questioning of property rights. One Parisian communist was elected to the Convention, but he exercised no influence, and was expelled from the party for refusing to support the new Constitution. But, with this exception, the Workingmen's candidates have been no more radical than the average of American politicians. At the last election, for instance, their ticket was headed by a graduate of the University of California, who has been prominent in the party since it first assumed importance, and one of its candidates at every election. He belongs to a Jewish family who do a profitable manufacturing business, and not only disclaimed anything like socialism or agrarianism, but appealed to the corporation lawyers with whom he served in the Convention to certify to his conservatism. And next to him came a rich land-owner who has given a hundred thousand dollars for the establishment of a law-school, of which he is dean. What Kearney and his party have practically proposed has been merely the remedy which their preachers, teachers, and influential newspapers are constantly prescribing to the American people as the great cure-all—elect honest men to office, and have them cut down taxation; a remedy which belongs to the same category as the recipe for catching a little bird by sprinkling salt on its tail!
Now, I do not mean to say that there has been nothing in this movement to excite alarm; that the classes whose fright has led them into foolish actions have been frightened entirely by their own shadows; or that, if by communism is meant a blind bitter irritation with things as they exist, there has not been communism in it. On the contrary, at the bottom of all this is deep social and political discontent. It is not radical, because it is not intelligent. It has been willing to follow those who promised really nothing; it has demanded only quack remedies because it is ignorant. But it is this that makes it dangerous. Ignorance, inflamed by passion, is the most terrible and destructive of monsters. The Jacqueries, the massacres, the reigns of terror, the revolutions which have overthrown one tyrant only to put a worse one in his place, have not been the work of those intelligent enough to see that social and political evils arise from wrong systems, but of those who, not quarreling with systems, charge the evils from which they suffer upon the wickedness of individuals or classes.
Had this movement involved anything which could properly be styled socialistic or communistic, it would have seemed to me hopeful, for socialism and communism involve some sort of theories which show at least a groping for real remedies. But what seems to me ominous in all these events is, that they show how easily our political struggles may pass into all the bitterness and dangers of excited class-feeling without calling forth any principle of improvement or reform. There is a comfortable belief widespread among us that, under a popular government, social and political evils tend to cure themselves by arousing the attention of the people. This would be true if, when the people became conscious of an evil, they stopped to think about its cause and its cure instead of following the first demagogue who, flattering their prejudices and appealing to their passions, promised them a cure. But this is not the lesson of history, nor yet does it seem to me the lesson of observation. What has been passing under my eyes has, with much greater vividness and force than I can convey in such a brief sketch, appeared to me to show the play of the same forces that have over and over again brought despotism out of freedom, anarchy out of order, and turned progress into retrogression. Popular government is not a new thing. All government in its beginning must have been popular government. And under all forms of government the people are the source of power. The force with which despots and tyrants, enslavers and destroyers, have worked has always been the force of the people themselves. Vox populi vox Dei! If that means anything more than that majorities are the source of power, it is as absurd a superstition as the faith in Mumbo Jumbo.
The danger to social order is not a direct one. The forces that would rally at any open assault upon it have with us overwhelming strength. The real danger comes through forms of legality and methods of government. Tweed and his little band would have been lodged in jail in a trice had they directly attempted their robberies; yet Tweed and his handful for years levied at their will upon the wealth of New York and flaunted their spoils in all men's eyes. The man who now talks about wading through blood and hanging people to lamp-posts is but the vender of a nostrum who dresses as a wild Indian to attract attention; but when blind fear and unreasoning resentment sway the Government, and give to whoever can arouse them the prizes of place and power, the day when blood will flow and cities burn may not be so far off. There has never yet been any clanger of mob violence in San Francisco; and yet, watching what has been going on there, it has seemed to me that I could see how jealousy and fear and hatred and revenge might mount through a series of actions and reactions to the point where reason is utterly trodden under foot; that I can understand better than before how faction piled the streets of Jerusalem with corpses, while Titus thundered at her gates; how the colors of circus-charioteers divided Constantinople into two hostile camps; how the reappearance of French liberty ushered in Red Terror and White Terror. It is true that we have the public school and the daily paper; that any child can tell you the distance of the sun, and how this system once rolled a mass of incandescent vapor. But, "scratch a Russian and you have a Tartar." Look at your civilized man when fired by that strange magnetic impulse which passion arouses in crowds, and you may read in his eyes the blind fury of the Malay running amuck. You will understand how handkerchiefs hemmed with the sewing machine might be dipped in blood, and hearts carried on pikes through streets lit with gas!
Aristocracies, hierarchies, established orders, hereditary castes, and strong religious beliefs that have become conservative, they are like the trees and the fences that check the violence of the blast that over a dead level rushes in headlong fury—like the ballast in a ship that resists the sudden lurch. But these we have cast off or are casting: off. Government with us grows in weight and importance; but this is not a conservative force when its increasing powers and emoluments are to be grasped by whoever can best organize corruption or rouse passion. We have great and increasing accumulations of wealth; capital is becoming organized in greater and greater masses, and the railroad company dwarfs the State. But these are not forces of stability. Perhaps these great combinations are forced into politics in self-defense. But, however they get there, their effect is but to demoralize and corrupt—to reward and to bring to political leadership the unscrupulous. And these great corporations themselves are but the prize and prey of adventurers, the fattening-places of unscrupulous rings.
Given universal suffrage; a vague, blind, bitter feeling of discontent on the one side and of insecurity on the other; unscrupulous politicians who may ride into power by exciting hopes and fears; class jealousies and class antipathies; great moneyed interests working through all parties with utter selfishness; a general disgust with political methods and feeling of practical political impotence, producing indifference and recklessness on the part of the great mass of voters—and any accident may start a series of the most dangerous actions and reactions. Such a community is like a ship with an ill-stowed cargo. In light winds and smooth water all may seem secure; but in the strain of a heavy sea what should be the element of stability becomes an element of danger, and may throw her upon her beam-ends or tear her to pieces.
What has been going on in California is not out of the natural course of things. The forces that have produced these events have been developed, not imported. And as it seems to me that the same forces exist in other parts of the country, I can not see why, essentially, the same movements may not soon begin elsewhere. It is this that makes these California experiences worthy of attention. Every result becomes in turn a cause; every event is the progenitor of future events. And it is probable that this California agitation marks the beginning of a new phase in our politics. Whatever be his future career, Kearney has already made what will be regarded by thousands and thousands of men, many of them of much greater abilities, as a dazzlingly brilliant success. An unknown drayman, destitute of adVantages, without following or influence, he has, simply by appealing to popular discontent and arousing the uneasy timidity which is its correlative, risen to the rank of a great leader, and drunk the sweets of power and fame. He knows what it is to be the hero and the master of surging multitudes; to draw forth their applause by a word, to hush them into silence with a wave of his hand; to be garlanded with flowers; to be drawn in triumph through crowded streets; to be attended wherever he went by a retinue of reporters and correspondents; to rise every morning to find the newspapers filled with him; to have men, who would not have noticed him had he stuck to his dray, slink by night to his house, or solicit his favors by go-betweens; to look upon high officials as the creatures of his making; to be known and talked about, not merely through the whole country, but over the world! Whatever becomes of Kearney—and it would be rash to predict that his career is yet over—this lesson will not be lost: The wave rises, curls, and subsides, and, where was its white crest, are but some spumes of foam. But the impulse is perpetuated, and another wave swells up.
When, under institutions that proclaim equality, masses of men, whose ambitions and tastes are aroused only to be crucified, find it a hard, bitter, degrading struggle even to live, is it to be expected that the sight of other men rolling in their millions will not excite discontent? And, when discontented men have votes, is it to be expected that the demagogue will not appeal to the discontent, for the sake of the votes? It is useless to blink the fact. Nothing is clearer, to whoever will look, than that the political equality from which we can not recede, and the social inequality to which we are tending, can not peacefully coexist. Nothing is surer than that all the inventions, and improvements, and discoveries, of which our time is so fruitful, are tending with irresistible force to carry mere political democracy into anarchy.
All these evidences of growing social and political discontent, all these agitations and disturbances—the more violent talk on the one side, the leaning to repression on the other—are indications of unstable equilibrium, of a maladjustment of powerful forces. It is the necessity of the time—the vital, pressing necessity—that these phenomena receive the careful, conscientious attention of thoughtful men, who will trace them to their source and popularize the remedy. It will not do to leave them to the ignorant poor and the ignorant rich, to politicians and demagogues. They require the scientific spirit and the scientific method; they demand the thought of those who can think, and whose opinions carry weight.
could not harm them, while a confidential attorney of large moneyed interests has been the reputed confidential adviser of Kearney.
- There have been no more meetings on Nob Hill, or denunciation of the railroad magnates or great bonanza firm. On the contrary, all the officials elected by the workingmen seem to have been either employees or friends of the railroad, or people who
- To illustrate what I mean, the man whom Kearney made vice-president, and who assumed his place during his absence, was an unnaturalized Englishman, who had been a sort of anti-Catholic missionary, and who could for this and other reasons get no lasting hold upon the Irish, of whom the active party was largely composed, and whom, when Kearney finally chose to, he flung aside without the slightest trouble. This was not an exception, but the rule.
- A job which the jovial sons of Mars rather liked, as it gave them three dollars per night for privates and five dollars for officers, and the necessity for which of course they did not belittle. In fact, in some of the night watches such expedients for continuing the excitement as getting on the outside and chucking bricks through the windows were discussed, if not put into practice.