Home -> Other California History Books -> California Sketches - Second Series -> The California Politician

Previous Page Home
Up One Level
Next Page


The California Politician.

The California politician of the early days was plucky. He had to be so, for faint heart won no votes in those rough times. One of the Marshalls (Tom or Ned - I forget which), at the beginning of a stump speech one night in the mines, was interrupted by a storm of hisses and execrations from a turbulent crowd of fellows, many of whom were full of whisky. He paused a moment, drew himself up to his full height, coolly took a pistol from his pocket, laid it on the stand before him, and said:

"I have seen bigger crowds than this many a time. I want it to be fully understood that I came here to make a speech tonight, and I am going to do it, or else there will be a funeral or two."

That touch took with that crowd. The one thing they all believed in was courage. Marshall made one of his grandest speeches, and at the close the delighted miners bore him in triumph from the rostrum.

That was a curious exordium of "Uncle Peter Mehan," when he made his first stump-speech at Sonora: "Fellow-citizens, I was born an orphin at a very early period of my life." He was a candidate for supervisor, and the good-natured miners elected him triumphantly. He made a good supervisor, which is another proof that book-learning and elegant rhetoric are not essential where there are integrity and native good sense. Uncle Peter never stole any thing, and he was usually on the right side of all questions that claimed the attention of the county-fathers of Tuolumne.

In the early days, the Virginians, New Yorkers, and Tennesseans, led in politics. Trained to the stump at home, the Virginians and Tennesseans were ready on all occasions to run a primary-meeting, a convention, or a canvass. There was scarcely a mining-camp in the State in which there was not a leading local politician from one or both of these States. The New Yorker understood all the inside management of party organization, and was up to all the smart tactics developed in the lively struggles of parties in the times when Whiggery and Democracy fiercely fought for rule in the Empire State. Broderick was a New Yorker, trained by Tammany in its palmy days. He was a chief, who rose from the ranks, and ruled by force of will. Thick-set, strong-limbed, full-chested, with immense driving-power in his back-head, he was an athlete whose stalwart physique was of more value to him than the gift of eloquence, or even the power of money. The sharpest lawyers and the richest money-kings alike went down before this uncultured and moneyless man, who dominated the clans of San Francisco simply by right of his manhood. He was not without a sort of eloquence of his own. He spoke right to the point, and his words fell like the thud of a shillalah; or rang like the clash of steel. He dealt with the rough elements of politics in an exciting and turbulent period of California politics, and was more of a border chief than an Ivanhoe in his modes of warfare. He reached the United States Senate, and in his first speech in that august body he honored his manhood by an allusion to his father, a stone mason, whose hands, said Broderick, had helped to erect the very walls of the chamber in which he spoke. When a man gets as high as the United States Senate, there is less tax upon his magnanimity in acknowledging his humble origin than while he is lower down the ladder. You seldom hear a man boast how low he began until he is far up toward the summit of his ambition. Ninety-nine out of every hundred self-made men are at first more or less sensitive concerning their low birth; the hundredth man who is not is a man indeed.

Broderick's great rival was Gwin. The men were antipodes in every thing except that they belonged to the same party. Gwin still lives, the most colossal figure in the history of California. He looks the man he is. Of immense frame, ruddy complexion, deep-blue eyes that almost blaze when he is excited, rugged yet expressive features, a massive bead crowned with a heavy suit of silver-white hair, he is marked by Nature for leadership. Common men seem dwarfed in his presence. After he had dropped out of California politics for awhile, a Sacramento hotel-keeper expressed what many felt during a legislative session: "I find myself looking around for Gwin. I miss the chief."

My first acquaintance with Dr. Gwin began with, an incident that illustrates the man and the times. It was in 1856. The Legislature was in session at Sacramento, and a United States Senator was to, be elected. I was making a tentative movement toward starting a Southern Methodist newspaper, and visited Sacramento on that business. My friend Major P. L. Solomon was there, and took a friendly interest in my enterprise. He proposed to introduce me to the leading men of both parties, and I thankfully availed myself of his courtesy. Among the first to whom he presented me was a noted politician who, both before and since, has enjoyed a national notoriety, and who still lives, and is as, ready as ever to talk or fight. His name I need not give. I presented to him my mission, and he seemed embarrassed.

"I am with you, of course. My mother was a Methodist, and all my sympathies are with the Methodist Church. I am a Southern man in all my convictions and impulses, and I am a Southern Methodist in principle. But you see, sir, I am a candidate for United States Senator, and sectional feeling is likely to enter into the contest, and if it were known that my name was on your list of subscribers, it might endanger my election."

He squeezed my arm, told me he loved me and my Church, said he would be happy to see me often, and so forth - but he did not give me his name. I left him, saying in my heart, Here is a politician.

Going on together, in the corridor we met Gwin. Solomon introduced me, and told him my business.

"I am glad to know that you are going to start a Southern Methodist newspaper. No Church can do without its organ. Put me down on your list, and come with me, and I will make all these fellows subscribe. There is not much religion among them, I fear, but we will make them take the paper."

This was said in a hearty and pleasant way, and he took me from man to man, until I had gotten more than a dozen names, among them two or three of his most active political opponents.

This incident exhibits the two types of the politician, and the two classes of men to be found in all communities - the one all "blarney" and selfishness, the other with real manhood redeeming poor human nature, and saving it from utter contempt. The senatorial prize eluded the grasp of both aspirants, but the reader will not be at a loss to guess whose side I was on. Dr. Gwin made a friend that day, and never lost him. It was this sort of fidelity to friends that, when fortune frowned on the grand old Senator after the collapse at Appomattox, rallied thousands of true hearts to his side, among whom were those who had fought him in many a fierce political battle. Broderick and Gwin were both, by a curious turn of political fortune, elected by the same Legislature to the United States Senate. Broderick sleeps in Lone Mountain, and Gwin still treads the stage of his former glory, a living monument of the days when California politics was half romance and half tragedy. The friend and protege of General Andrew Jackson, a member of the first Constitutional Convention of California, twice United States Senator, a prominent figure in the civil war, the father of the great Pacific Railway, he is the front figure on the canvas of California history.

Gwin was succeeded by McDougall. What a man was he! His face was as classic as a Greek statue. It spoke the student and the scholar in every line. His hair was snow- white, his eyes bluish gray, and his form sinewy and elastic. He went from Illinois, with Baker and other men of genius, and soon won a high place at the bar of San Francisco. I heard it said, by an eminent jurist, that when McDougall had put his whole strength into the examination of a case, his side of it was exhausted. His reading was immense, his learning solid. His election was doubtless a surprise to himself as well as to the California public. The day before he left for Washington City, I met him in the street, and as we parted I held his hand a moment, and said:

"Your friends will watch your career with hope and with fear."

He knew what I meant, and said, quickly:

"I understand you. You are afraid that I will yield to my weakness for strong drink. But you may be sure I will play the man, and California shall have no cause to blush on my account."

That was his fatal weakness. No one, looking upon his pale, scholarly face, and noting his faultlessly neat apparel, and easy, graceful manners, would have thought of such a thing. Yet he was a - I falter in writing it - a drunkard. At times he drank deeply and madly. When half intoxicated he was almost as brilliant as Hamlet, and as rollicking as Falstaff. It was said that even when fully drunk his splendid intellect never entirely gave way.

"McDougall commands as much attention in the Senate when drunk as any other Senator does when sober," said a Congressman in Washington in 1866. It is said that his great speech on the question of "confiscation," at the beginning of the war, was delivered when he was in a state of semi-intoxication. Be that as it may, it exhausted the whole question, and settled the policy of the Government.

"No one will watch your senatorial career with more friendly interest than myself; and if you will abstain wholly from all strong drink, we shall all, be proud of you, I know."

"Not a drop will I touch, my friend; and I'll make you proud of me."

He spoke feelingly, and I think there was a moisture about his eye as he pressed my hand and walked away.

I never saw him again. For the first few months he wrote to me often, and then his letters came at longer intervals, and then they ceased. And then the newspapers disclosed the shameful secret California's brilliant Senator was a drunkard. The temptations of the Capital were too strong for him. He went down into the black waters a complete wreck. He returned to the old home of his boyhood in New Jersey to die. I learned that he was lucid and penitent at the last. They brought his body back to San Francisco to be buried, and when at his funeral the words "I know that my Redeemer liveth," in clear soprano, rang through the vaulted cathedral like a peal of triumph, I indulged the hope that the spirit of my gifted and fated friend had, through the mercy of the Friend of sinners, gone from his boyhood hills up to the hills of God.

The typical California politician was Coffroth. The "boys" fondly called him "Jim" Coffroth. There is no surer sign of popularity than a popular abbreviation of this sort, unless it is a pet nickname. Coffroth was from Pennsylvania, where he had gained an inkling of polities and general literature. He gravitated into California polities by the law of his nature. He was born for this, having what a friend calls the gift of popularity. His presence was magnetic; his laugh was contagious; his enthusiasm irresistible. Nobody ever thought of taking offense at Jim Coffroth. He could change his politics with impunity without losing a friend - he never had a personal enemy; but I believe he only made that experiment once. He went off with the Know-nothings in 1855, and was elected by them to the State Senate, and was called to preside over their State Convention. He hastened back to his old party associates, and at the first convention that met in his county on his return from the Legislature, he rose and told them how lonesome he had felt while astray from the old fold, how glad he was to get back, and how humble he felt, concluding by advising all his late supporters to do as he had done by taking "a straight chute" for the old party. He ended amid a storm of applause, was reinstated at once, and was made President of the next Democratic State Convention. There he was in his glory. His tact and good humor were infinite, and he held those hundreds of excitable and explosive men in the hollow of his hand. He would dismiss a dangerous motion with a witticism so apt that the mover himself would join in the laugh, and give it up. His broad face in repose was that of a Quaker, at other times that of a Bacchus. There was a religious streak in this jolly partisan, and he published several poems that breathed the sweetest and loftiest religious sentiment. The newspapers were a little disposed to make a joke of these ebullitions of devotional feeling, but they now make the light that casts a gleam of brightness upon the background of his life. I take from an old volume of the Christian Spectator one of these poems as a literary curiosity. Every man lives two lives. The rollicking politician, "Jim Coffroth," every Californian knew; the author of these lines was another man by the same name:

Amid the Silence of the Night.
"Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." Psalm cxxi.

Amid the silence of the night,
Amid its lonely hours and dreary,
When we Close the aching sight,
Musing sadly, lorn and weary,
Trusting that tomorrow's light
May reveal a day more cheery;

Amid affliction's darker hour,
When no hope beguiles our sadness,
When Death's hurtling tempests lower,
And forever shroud our gladness,
While Grief's unrelenting power
Goads our stricken hearts to madness;

When from friends beloved we're parted,
And from scenes our spirits love,
And are driven, broken-hearted,
O'er a heartless world to rove;
When the woes by which we've smarted,
Vainly seek to melt or move;
When we trust and are deluded,
When we love and are denied,
When the schemes o'er which we brooded
Burst like mist on mountain's side,
And, from every hope excluded,
We in dark despair abide;

Then, and ever, God sustains us,
He whose eye no slumber knows,
Who controls each throb that pains us,
And in mercy sends our woes,
And by love severe constrains us
To avoid eternal throes.

Happy he whose heart obeys him!
Lost and ruined who disown!
O if idols e'er displace him,
Tear them from his chosen throne!
May our lives and language praise him!
May our hearts be his alone!

He took defeat with a good nature that robbed it of its sting, and made his political opponents half sorry for having beaten him. He was talked of for Governor at one time, and he gave as a reason, why he would like the office that "a great many of his friends were in the State-prison, and he wanted to use the pardoning power in their behalf." This was a jest, of course, referring to the fact that as a lawyer much of his practice was in the criminal courts. He was never suspected of treachery or dishonor in public or private life. His very ambition was unselfish: he was always ready to sacrifice himself in a hopeless candidacy if he could thereby help his party or a friend.

His good nature was tested once while presiding over a party convention at Sonora for the nomination of candidates for legislative and county offices. Among the delegates was the eccentric John Vallew, whose mind was a singular compound of shrewdness and flightiness, and was stored with the most out-of-the-way scraps of learning, philosophy, and poetry. Some one proposed Vallew's name as a candidate for the Legislature. He rose to his feet with a clouded face, and in an angry voice said:

"Mr. President, I am surprised and mortified. I have lived in this county more than seven years, and I have never had any difficulty with my neighbors. I did not know that I had an enemy in the world. What have I done, that it should be proposed to send me to the Legislature? What reason has anybody to think I am that sort of a man? To think I should have come to this! To propose to send me to the Legislature, when it is a notorious fact that you have never sent a man thither from this county who did not come back morally and pecuniarily ruined!"

The crowd saw the point, and roared with laughter, Coffroth, who had served in the previous session, joining heartily in the merriment. Vallew was excused.

Coffroth grew fatter and jollier; his strong intellect struggled against increasing sensual tendencies. What the issue might have been, I know not. He died suddenly, and his destiny was transferred to another sphere. So there dropped out of California-life a partisan without bitterness, a satirist without malice, a wit without a sting, the jolliest, freest, readiest man that ever faced a California audience on the hustings - the typical politician of California.


Previous Page
Up One Level
Next Page