Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

Synopsis

Lively, authoritative essays on the political history of California from the Gold Rush and the achievement of statehood through the end of the 19th century. The fourth and final volume in a series of essays on California history, copublished with the California State Historical Society.

Excerpt

As much as today's state legislators, officials, and bureaucrats are criticized in California—sometimes with just cause—the first generation of political and governmental leaders was even more vilified in its own day. Many of them, it turned out, were—like their fellow Argonauts—short-termers, more passionate about “making their pile” and heading back to where they had hailed from than they were about building a new community and polity. Addicted to party and factional infighting, giving and receiving patronage, and even on occasion fighting or dueling to redress petty slights or to get their way, California's “founding fathers” were roundly condemned for their corruption, low moral standards, and general lack of accomplishments. Meeting in the winter of 1849–50, the first body of representatives, for example, was widely ridiculed as the “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks. ” Nor did governors escape the representatives' ill repute. Contemporary historian Hubert Howe Bancroft criticized the first governor, Peter Burnett, as “too slow in action, too wordy in speech, too conservative for the period, and too prejudiced for the rapid changes taking place”; even Burnett described himself as having “feeble abilities … [that] allowed me to accomplish so little for the state. ” Another early governor—John McDougal—the public labeled “that gentlemanly drunkard. ”

With a few exceptions, later historians have followed the lead of the state's first citizens. In historical accounts, the first politicians, to the extent that they are even discussed, are portrayed as self-interested, disengaged, racially prejudiced, and venal, or at best incompetent. As a result, historians treat pioneer California's government as generally ineffective in coping with the great challenges of rapid population growth and economic change. Most often, however, in the historical literature, the establishment of early government in the state is simply ignored.

The first major dissenter from this evaluation, the first to take the subject seriously . . .

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