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San Francisco History 1865-1900

1888 Biography of Henry George

Preface to 4th Edition, by Henry George

Introduction to Progress and Poverty, by Henry George

“The Sand Lot Party,” by Viscount James Bryce

San Francisco’s Early Labor History

The Museum’s Labor Archives

John Swett and Early Calif. Education

Biography of Andrew Hallidie - Cable Car Inventor

Return to Part I of Kearney Agitation in California.

Kearney Agitation in California [Part II]

by Henry George

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. He 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 proletariat.

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 do 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 to 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 selects as his lieutenants and allowed to come to the front were, without exception, not only men who accepted of those 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. (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.)

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 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, such 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. He 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 labor vote, introduces a property qualification, prevents the opening of public works in emergency, and in various ways, which the 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 line with 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 causes, 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 a 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 ranged, 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 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 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 denounced 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 million acres!

Photo of the Rev. Isaac Kalloch

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. [Isaac] 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 and preached the virtues of dealing with mobs by loading with grape[shot] 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 [Charles] 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.

Photograph of Chronicle founder Charles De YoungAfter 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. (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 though the windows were discussed, if not put into practice.)

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 though 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 if 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 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 fanatical reformer, but of the politician, and possibly in a rough sort of way, not of the “coming Cæser” of whom we hear so much, but of the real Cæser 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 new constitutions of other States.

That Kearney or any considerable number of his followers ever seriously though 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 his 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 south 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 did a profitable manufacturing business, and not only disclaimed anything like socialism nor 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 the social and political evils arise from wrong systems, but of those of 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 exciting class-feeling without calling forth any principle of improvement or reform. There is a comfortable believe 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 become 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 s 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 and would have lodged in jail in a thrice 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 danger 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 that 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 who fired by that strange magnetic impulse which passion arouses in crowds, and you 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 creasing 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 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 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 is probable that this California agitation marks the beginning of a new phrase 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 dazzling 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 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 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 those opinions carry weight.

IN: “The Popular Science Monthly,”
August 1880

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