LABOR, THE FARMERS,
AND
THE NEW CONSTITUTION
CHAPTER 25

In 1873, a nationwide economic panic affected all segments of California society. Tramps slept in abandoned barns and job seekers crowded dusty roads in search of employment. The luckiest among them found work that paid $2 a day. The dry winter of 1876 ruined the state’s grain harvest and added to the travails facing ranchers. Then, in 1877, a great railway strike plunged the country into violence and turmoil. Labor riots in large cities like New York and Chicago also encouraged discord out West.

In San Francisco, a forceful labor leader arose to take advantage of widespread dissatisfaction. Denis Kearney, a native of County Cork, Ireland, had arrived during 1868, having followed the sea from boyhood. In personal habits he was industrious and frugal. In appearance he was short and stout, with coarse features and dark eyes. Clothed in a sweat-stained waistcoat, he was a dynamic speaker who shouted epigrams but who also possessed the power to sway audiences with his intemperate language. His San Francisco freightdraying business, purchased in 1872, prospered until Kearney’s incendiary utterances caused merchants to withdraw their patronage.

A rabid exclusionist, Kearney repeatedly harangued his followers with the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” But even as the rate of unemployment increased, 22,000 Chinese arrived in California’s ports in the year 1876 alone, fanning the flames of social unrest Kearney had lighted. Meanwhile, his “shoulderstriking hoodlums,” recruited among disgruntled workers, physically abused the Chinese.

Below the palaces of San Francisco’s Nob Hill millionaires, unemployed workers prowled the streets looking for hapless Chinese to abuse. In July of

-208-

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