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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Law was passed closing saloons on election day to quell rioting

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Our recent local elections with low voter turnout and disinterested citizens had me look at earlier elections in Solano County. With today’s well-regulated and orderly campaign and voting system in mind, 19th century elections read more like a riot.

California elections in the 1860s and 1870s were not polite and civilized affairs. Instead, they resulted in days full of excitement, heated editorials in the newspapers and much slandering of opponents. Public discussion often took place in men’s clubs or the many saloons that dotted towns. Free liquor in turn led to heated discussions and the occasional riot.

The State Legislature eventually passed a law to close the saloons on election days. This helped to quiet down the more exuberant voters, although some saloons still left the back door open to provide refreshments.

The elections of 1871 saw the Republican and Democratic parties campaign fiercely for every vote, with seemingly no hesitation over the means employed.

The office of the governor, a large part of the legislature and several other state offices were up for election on Sept. 6. Locally, the offices of assemblyman, sheriff, treasurer, recorder, county clerk and district attorney needed to be filled.

Voters got some of their information from the various local newspapers, especially through articles describing the two party platforms and through various editorials.

The weekly Solano Republican aggressively supported the Republican Party and did not hesitate in its choice of words. In an editorial on May 18, 1871, the paper made it clear that “Everybody who knows us knows that we regard the Democratic party of today as the “highest expression of the will of the Prince of Darkness among men,” and that, consequently in no probable concatenation of circumstances will we support any but the regularly chosen candidates of the Republican party. We cannot conceive the circumstances under which we could support a democratic candidate for any position above that of constable “

The biased language is unbelievable to today’s readers (and I do hope that no Democratic reader takes offense). At the time, this article was only one of many that espoused such inflammatory sentiments.

As for getting supporters to vote for a candidate, voters tolerated some questionable practices.

One such practice included a story about an attempted bribe. The article was titled a “Political Joke,” and was published in the Weekly Solano Republican on June 8, 1871. While none of the persons were identified beyond an initial, readers at the time surely knew who was involved.

“A good story is told on two political candidates for county positions who do not live more than two miles from this place (i. e. Suisun, where the Weekly Solano Republican was published.). One of them, Mr. W——-, owns a ranch in the valley, and the other day, having occasion to visit it, he invited a certain well-known politician of this locality to ride with him.

‘On arriving at the ranch, it is said that W——drove up a hill overlooking a splendid field of growing wheat which belonged to him.

“After bragging about it for some time he turned to his political companion and said, “You see what a splendid field of what this is; now if you will give me your influence for Sheriff I will give you the best acre of it in the field.”

“His political companion turned abruptly around and viewed him for a few seconds with rank astonishment. He then warmly exclaimed: “You must be a d——fool; P——has agreed to give me the flour in the sack.”

According to the Solano Republican on July 13, “For Sheriff the candidates are ‘thick as toads after a shower.’ Isaac Hobbe, J. H. K. Barbour, Wm. Stannes and Jack McCarthy, of Vallejo, H. G. Wetmore, of Suisun, Geo. C. McKinley, of Dixon, and H. C. Dunton, of Maine Prairie, would cheerfully accept the office.”

One wonders who the political companion was.

Equal district representation was one of the major concerns within the Republican Party, as shown by an article on June 8, 1871.

“No one can pretend to assume that a basis of representation is just which gives to one individual of the party three times the power that it does to another, and for no other reason than that one lives in a different portion of the county from the other. The object to arrive at is equal representation as nearly as possible, or in other words, that each member of the party shall wield the same amount of power at the ballot box.

“In order to arrive at a proper adjustment we find, first, the number of Republican voters in the county. How shall we ascertain this fact? Why, by the last expression of the political preferences of the people at the ballot box. . Next we settle upon the number of voters entitled to one representative. Having done this, we divide the number cast in each precinct by the number settled upon as a basis of representation. It may happen in some of the smaller precincts that the number of voters will not entitle the precinct to a delegate. In all such cases the precinct should be allowed one vote in order that all may be represented.

“The whole matter is simple and easy of solution and presents no difficulties. It only becomes difficult when committees forget their duty to the whole party and endeavor to so arrange matters as to give one section or one candidate an advantage over the other.”

I will continue this story in my next column.