Taming the Elephant: An Introduction to California's Statehood and Constitutional Era

By Burns, John F. | California History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Taming the Elephant: An Introduction to California's Statehood and Constitutional Era


Burns, John F., California History


The phrase "seeing the elephant" was frequently used during the California Gold Rush by western sojourners to describe their encounters with strange and alien situations or exotic and enlivening experiences--something as unique as actually seeing an elephant was at that time. The reality of seeing the elephant sometimes did not match the anticipation of the event. Thus, "seeing the elephant" became an apt metaphor for the Gold Rush, in which most people found more disappointments than riches. Although the phrase was generally applied to a gold-seeking adventure, the task of bringing discipline and order to the new state's politics and government in its chaotic infancy was a mammoth undertaking in its own right. California's extraordinary gold-rush-induced growth during a period of difficult transition from Mexican to American sovereignty was a challenge of elephant-like dimensions, as the essays in this book demonstrate. Those people involved in early California governance not only "saw the elephant," but they also had to attempt to corral it.

The extraordinary and rapid development of California's public sector after 1848 is a fascinating but largely obscure story. Driven by the rare occasion of immediate statehood and the subsequent necessity to quickly institute a broad range of civic activities, governmental development played a key role in the transformation of California from conquered place and unbridled frontier into a viable entity that could take its place alongside the other states of the Union. But how instrumental was that role in the making of California as we know it? Although the social, cultural, and economic ramifications of California's first thirty years as a state have been treated extensively in historical literature, no comparable body of work has yet emerged that thoroughly delves into the public arena. The state sesquicentennial anniversary prompted the preparation of several excellent new works on the Gold Rush and its aftermath, but the emergence of the state and its public institutions has been ignored or, at best, sligh ted.

A prevalent notion is that California's early efforts at government were unimportant, incompetent, and principally devoted to fleecing whatever unfortunate souls could be victimized. Historian J. S. Holliday recently contended that "certainly no other state endured an adolescence so orphaned from the steadying hand of enlightened leadership as California... narrow ambition and greed ruled the time....California did not inspire political idealism [and] statecraft seemed a pestering distraction." Earlier authors were no more complimentary. Andrew Rolle, for instance, echoed Hubert Howe Bancroft's characterization of the state's politics as permeated by "corruption, mediocrity, and bossism," and Rolle labeled the constitutional era "one of the dullest periods in California's political life." (1)

Yet that may not be the whole story In his interpretive history of the state, Edward Staniford, for example, maintained that "party and public affairs rumbled with political turbulence. In such precarious times, mixed concentrations of people produced unstable and unrestrained communities. The California cauldron was boiling with the elements of both lowly and heroic achievement." Even more affirmative, Judson A. Grenier called California's initial political period "almost as important as gold in shaping the state." Indisputably, government agencies and public policy were formed and civic activities undertaken in the frontier period, and it is reasonable to assume that, to some degree, they affected subsequent California politics and government. Staniford asserted that the leadership impulses, political bargaining, and interest-group pressure that characterized California's early governmental efforts continue to be the basic manner of operation of California's party and governmental system." (2)

The essays in this volume begin an overdue examination of some of these issues and test and modify long-standing perceptions. …

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