Henry George, “The Kearney Agitation in California,” extracted from Popular Science Monthly (August 1880):
Though yet comparatively a small city, San Francisco is in character more metropolitan than any other American city except New York, and is, to the territory and population of which she is in the commercial, industrial, financial, and political center, even more of a center than is New York. San Francisco has no rival. For long distances her bay is spoken of as “the bay,” and she is not merely the greatest city, but “the city.”
And, though the European element is largely represented in San Francisco, it is, I am inclined to think, more thoroughly Americanized than in the Eastern cities. The reason I take to be, not merely that is drawn from the more activity and intelligent of the immigration that sets upon the Atlantic shore, and has generally only reached California after a longer or shorter sojourn in more Eastern States, but also that the American population having been drawn from all sections of the country, and from the early days the whole immigration having been rather of individuals than of colonies or families, the admixture has been more thorough, and except as to the Chinese, that polarization which divides a mixed population into distinct communities has not so readily taken place.
Contrary, too, to the reputation which she seems to have got, San Francisco is really an orderly city. Although the police force has been doubled within the past two years, it still bears a smaller proportion to population than in other large cities. Chinamen go about the streets with far more security than I imagine they will go about any Eastern city when they become proportionately numerous; and, after all said of hoodlumism, there is little obtrusive rowdyism and few street fights — a fact which may in part result from the once universal practice of carrying arms.
Nor has communism or socialism (understanding by these terms the desire for fundamental social changes) made, up to this time, much progress in California, for the presence of the Chinese has largely engrossed the attention of the laboring classes, offering what has seemed to make a sufficient explanation of the fall of wages and the difficulty of finding employment. Only the more thoughtful have heeded the fact that in other parts of the world where there are no Chinamen the condition of the laboring classes is even worse in California. With the masses the obvious evils of Chinese competition have excluded all thought of anything else. And in this anti-Chinese feeling there is, of course, nothing that can properly be deemed socialistic or communistic. On the contrary, socialists and communists are more tolerant of the Chinese than any other class of those who feel or are threatened by their competition. For not only is there, at the bottom of what is called socialism and communism, the great idea of equality and brotherhood of men, but they who look to changes in the fundamental institutions of society as the only means of improving the condition of the masses necessarily regard Chinese immigration as a minor evil, if in a proper social state it could be any evil at all. Nor is there in this anti-Chinese feeling anything essentially foreign. Those who talk about opposition to the Chinese being anti-American shut their eyes to a great many facts if they mean anything more than that it ought to be anti-American.
In short, I am unable to see, in the conditions from which this agitation sprang, anything really peculiar to California. I can not regard the anti-Chinese sentiment as really peculiar, because it must soon arise in the East should Chinese immigration continue; and because in connection in which we are considering it, its nature and effects do not materially differ from those which elsewhere are aroused by other causes. The main fact which underlies all this agitation is popular discontent; and, where there is popular discontent, if there is not one Jonah, another will be found. Thus, over and over again, popular discontent has fixed upon the Jews, and among ourselves there is a large class who make the “ignorant foreigner” the same sort of a scapegoat for all political demoralization and corruption.
There has been in California growing social and political discontent, but the main causes of this do not materially differ from those which elsewhere exist. Some of the factors of discontent may have attained greater development in California than in older sections, but I am inclined to think this is merely because in the newer States general tendencies are quicker seen. For instance, the concentration of the whole railroad system in the hands of one close corporation is remarkable in California, but there is clearly a general tendency to such concentration, which is year by year steadily uniting railroad management all over the country.
The “grand culture” of machine-worked fields, which calls for large gangs of men at certain seasons, setting them adrift when the crop is gathered, and which is so largely instrumental in filling San Francisco every winter with unemployed men, is certainly the form to which American agriculture generally tends, and is developing in the new Northwest even more rapidly than in California.
Be all this as it may, the impulse that began these California agitations came from the East. For the genesis of Kearneyism, or rather for the shock that set in motion forces that social and political discontent had been generating, we must look to Pittsburgh and to the great railroad strikes of 1877.
In California, where a similar strike was beginning — for the railroad company had given notice of a like reduction in wages — these strikes excited an interest that became intense when the telegraph told of the burning and fighting in Pittsburgh. The railroad magnates, becoming alarmed, rescinded their notice, but in the mean time a meeting to express sympathy with the Eastern strikers had been called for the sand-lot in front of the new City Hall. This meeting was called in response to a request of Eastern labor papers, but happened to fall amid the excitement caused by the Pittsburgh riot. The over-zealous authorities, catching, perhaps, the alarm that had induced the railroad managers to rescind their reduction, arrested men who were carrying placards advertising the meeting. In the excitement, wild reports flew through the city that an incendiary meeting was to be held, and an attempt made to burn the Pacific Mail Docks and Chinese quarter.
The meeting was held, for the authorities soon saw that there was no reason for preventing it. There was no talk of lawlessness or allusion to the Chinese on the part of the promoters of the meeting or their speakers, but the excitement showed itself by the raising, on the outskirts of the immense crowd, of the cry, “To Chinatown!” a movement promptly stopped by the police; and in remoter districts some Chinese wash-houses were raided by gangs of boys. The papers — sensational to the last degree — made the most of this the next morning, and in the excitement that the Eastern news had created, a meeting was held in the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, organized a Committee of Public Safety, with the President of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 [William Tell Coleman] at its head, the hint being probably given by a telegram that the citizens of Pittsburgh had restored order by organizing a force armed with base-ball bats. In San Francisco the pick-handle was chose instead, and for some days a large number of men so armed perambulated the streets….
Among those who carried a pick-handle in this “pick-handle brigade,” as it was christened, was an Irish drayman, who has since become famous. [Denis] Kearney, a man of strict temperance in all except speech, had built up a good business in draying for mercantile houses, and accumulated, besides his horses and drays, a comfortable little property. Up to this time he had taken no part in politics, except to parade in torch light processions as a “Hayes Invincible,” but for some two years had been a constant attendant at a sort of free debating club, held on Sunday afternoons, and styled the Lyceum of Self-Culture, where he had gradually learned to speak in public, though the temperance which he practiced and preached as to liquor and tobacco did not extend to opinions or their expression. He was noticeable not merely for the bitter vulgarity of his attacks upon all forms of religion, especially that in which he had been reared, the Catholic, but for the venom with which he abused the working classes, and took on every occasion what passed for the capitalistic side….
The first move was a meeting to consider the Chinese question, at which a speech was made by a highly respected and prominent citizen; but when Kearney, who officiated as secretary, got the stand, he dealt out some more highly seasoned mental stimulant by reading a description of the burning of Moscow as a suggestion of what might be in store for San Francisco. Then appropriating the name of the Workingman’s party, Day and Kearney took to the sand-lot, enlisting some other speakers. Though violent, these harangues would have attracted little attention, and in fact the movement might have been choked in infancy (for several rival factions started up, and opposition platforms were erected within a few feet of each other), but for a powerful ally of just the kind needed.
The two San Francisco papers of largest circulation are the “Call” and “Chronicle,” between whom intense rivalry has long existed. The “Call” has the greater circulation and more profitable business, drawn largely from the working classes. It is a good newspaper, but its editorial management is timorous to a ridiculous degree. The “Chronicle,” whose principal proprietor [Charles de Young] recently lost his life in a tragedy growing out of these occurrences, is best described as a “live paper” of the most vigorous and unscrupulous kind. As though a tacit partnership had been formed, Kearney began to call upon workingmen to stop the “Call” and take the “Chronicle,” while the “Chronicle” on its part advertised the meetings in the highest style of the art, giving Kearney the greatest prominence and detailing its best reporters to the manufacture and dress up his speeches. Thus advertised, the meetings began to draw.
California Street Hill is crowned by the palaces of the railroad nabobs — men who a few years ago were selling coal-oil or retailing dry goods, but who now count their wealth by the scores of millions. To complete the block which one of these had selected for his palace, an undertaker’s homestead was necessary. The undertaker wanted more than the nabob was willing to give, and the latter cut short the negotiation by inclosing the undertaker’s house on three sides with an immense board fence, probably the highest on the Pacific coast, if not in the world. This veritable coffin, which shuts out view and sun from the undertaker’s little home, and with the common law, now abrogated in California by the code, would not have been permitted, is one of the most striking features of the hill.
When, with the assistance of the “Chronicle,” the meetings had begun to draw crowds, largely composed of unemployed men, who after the harvest begin to collect in San Francisco, and of a class that of late years has become numerous, the professional beggars or strikers, a meeting was called for the top of the California Street Hill, where the nabobs were regaled by the cheers of a surging crowd, when it was proposed by one of the speakers — a pamphleteer and newspaper writer well known in California for many years, but neither before nor since took any part in the agitation — to celebrate Thanksgiving by pulling down the big fence, if not removed by that time. This was too much: the railroad magnates were frightened — even the “Chronicle” demanded the arrest of the agitators; a sudden energy was infused into the authorities, and they, with the proposer of the fence-destruction, were arrested on charges of riot.
That these arrests were ill advised the sequel proves. And it is to be remarked that in all Kearney’s wild declamation there has been no direct incitement to violence. He has talked about wading through blood, hanging official thieves, burning the Chinese quarter, and generally “raising Cain,” but it has always been with an “if.” He has never come any nearer to actually proposing any of these things than Daniel O’Connell did to proposing armed resistance to the English Government. Nor yet is it easy to point to anything which Kearney has said that is really more violence or incendiary than things said before with impunity. It was not Kearney, but a republican leader, a man of wealth, ability, and influence, who has held high position, and was this year a prominent member of the National Republican Convention, who first proposed that the Pacific Mail steamers should be burned at their docks if they did not cease to bring Chinese; it was a bitter opponent of Kearneyism who, amid thunders of applause, in the largest hall of the city, first suggested that the Chinese quarter should be purified with fire and planted with grass; while as to bitter denunciations of parties, classes, and individuals, and prognostications of violence and calamity if this, that, or the other was or was not done, there is probably nothing that Kearney or his fellows have said that could not be matched from previous political speeches or newspaper articles. That dangers may sometimes arise from an abuse of the liberty of speech may be true, but it is so exceedingly delicate a thing to attempt to draw any line short of the direct incitement to specific illegal action, that the only course consistent with the genius of our institutions is to leave such abuses to their own natural remedy….
The dangers to social order that arise from the glaring inequalities of wealth come as much from this direction as from the discontent of the less fortunate classes. It was this feeling that, organizing the “pick-handle brigade,” prepared the way and gave the hint for agitation; it was this feeling that, now striking blindly through the authorities, gave to an agitation dignity and power….
The feeling on the Chinese question has long been so strong in California as to give certain victory to any party that could fully utilize it. But the difficulty in the way of making political capital of this feeling has been to get resistance, since all parties were willing to take the strongest anti-Chinese ground. But the fear that the agitators had evidently inspired, the effort to put them down, served as such resistance; and, though all parties were anti-Chinese, the party they were endeavoring to start became at once the anti-Chinese party in the eyes of those who were bitterest and strongly in their feeling, while it at the same time became an expression, though rudely and vaguely, of all sorts of discontent. It was evident that it would be a political power for at least one election. The lower strata of ward politicians were rushing into it as a good chance for office; the “Chronicle,” which, at the first symptom of reaction, had redoubled its service, placarded the State with resolutions of the new party asking workingmen to stop the “Call.” That paper, losing heavily in subscribers, quietly began to outdo the “Chronicle” in its reports and its puffery.
Other papers, recognized as organs of interests popularly regarded with dislike, did their utmost by denunciation to keep Kearney in the foreground. Republican politicians saw in the movement a division of the Democratic vote worth fostering; Democratic politicians saw in it an element of future success, on the right side of which the political wise men would keep; the municipal authorities, remembering coming elections, passed from persecution to obsequiousness; while the great railroad interest either came to a tacit understanding, or had its agents install themselves in the new organization, using it to help their friends and keep out their enemies, as they aim to use, and generally succeed in using, all parties, and men of high social standing did not hesitate, when it served their purpose, to furnish points and matter for sand-lot harangues, or to speak at meetings which Kearney and his gang had captured; for, until they met a very warm reception at a Democratic meeting, they arrogated to themselves the right to interrupt and “bull-doze” any meeting that did not suit them. (There have been no more meetings on Nob Hill, or denunciation of the railroad magnates or great bonanza firm. On the contrary, all the officials elected by the workingmen seem to have been either employees or friends of the railroad, or people who could not harm them, while a confidential attorney of large moneyed interests has been the reputed confidential advisor of Kearney.)
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….
That Kearney or any considerable number of his followers ever seriously thought 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.