Benicia Capitol State Historic Park

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BENICIA THE CAPITAL

"Thither [to Benicia] that conveniently portable piece of public property, the State Archives, will next be trundled, and there the herd of politicians in the State be gathered together in the name of office . . . a pious conclave for which a better rodeo ground than Benicia could not have been selected."

From The Alta California, February 5, 1853

The painters and carpenters had scarcely time enough to sweep up and clear away their tools before the Legislature began arriving in Benicia to occupy the new capitol building. The steam-tug Firefly and two scows were chartered to move the state archives and furniture from the "old" capitol at Vallejo, and on Saturday evening, February 9, 1853, a grand ball was held in the Assembly Chambers of the new statehouse to celebrate the move. A brass band from the nearby military barracks played far into the night for the pleasure of the numerous guests, some of whom came all the way from San Francisco or Sacramento expressly for the event.

With the Legislature in session and numerous visitors, messengers, secretaries, and lobbyists looking in on the legislators for one reason or another, Benicia became very lively. Hotel space was at a premium. New buildings continued to spring up - especially alongside the new boardwalk that connected the waterfront steamer landing with the capitol building. Even Benicia's night life took on a touch of big-city liveliness. The saloon in one leading hotel, for example, decided to stay open around the clock and proudly announced that it had not one but two pianos for the entertainment of all and sundry.

Inside the stately halls of the Legislature, business moved at a dizzying pace. In a little more than ninety days the twenty-seven Senators and sixty-three Assemblymen who made up the Legislature of 1853 submitted and considered four hundred and sixty bills. One hundred and eighty of those bills were approved and subsequently signed into law by Governor Bigler. Minutes of the meetings were printed overnight in San Francisco in both English and Spanish. Smoking was prohibited within the Capitol, though chewing tobacco was acceptable and a brass spittoon was provided each lawmaker.

Among the more inportant legislative accomplishments of the fourth session were the establishment of an asylum for the insane on donated land near Stockton. Regulations were also established for committing, conveying, and maintaining the insane. A flour inspection system was created, complete with penalties for false branding or counterfeiting of brands or marks. Flour was to be graded "Superfine", "Fine", "Middling", "Bad", or "Condemned". (Inspectors were appointed and promised five cents for every pound of flour they inspected.) A lumber inspection service was also established with a measurer to be stationed at San Francisco. Codification of all California's statutes was carried out in order to identify the many conflicting or ineffective statutes already on the books. A board of prison commissioners was constituted and authorized to enter into a contract for the erection of a state prison at San Quentin for not more than $153,315.

As president of the State Senate, Lieutenant Governor Samuel Purdy settled one of the most hotly debated issues of the year by casting his tie-breaking Senate vote against further extension of the San Francisco waterfront into San Francisco Bay. This measure had been proposed and justified as a way to pay off the state government's rapidly growing debt. But the fact was that two-thirds of the income from the sale of waterfront lots would have gone to a handful of speculators - including several leading State Senators and Assemblymen.

By far the most important single legislative proposition before the Legislature of 1853 was a bill calling for revision of the state constitution. This matter was put forward in glowingly patriotic language as something intended to serve the general welfare. The real motive behind all the rhetoric, however, was a pro-slavery, pro-Southern drive to divide the state in two - north and south. The southern state would be pro-slave (and thus tip the Congressional balance in Washington, D.C.) while the northern state, though technically still a "free" state (as per the famous "Clay Compromise of 1850") might nevertheless still be dominated by a clever coalition of Whigs (conservatives) and pro-slavery Southern Democrats.

The leader of pro-slavery political interests in California was Senator William Gwin, the very wealthy and aristocratic Southern Democrat who controlled the flow of federal patronage into California (jobs, contracts, appointments, etc.) through his position in the U.S. Senate. The leading anti-slavery spokesman in California was David C. Broderick, a Jacksonian or Free Soil Democrat who had grown up and served his political apprenticeship among the working-class immigrants of New York City. Unlike Gwin and the "Chivalry" Democrats, Broderick and his supporters were unalterably opposed to slavery in any form. They believed that state and federal land policies should lead to the creation of a society of free and independent landowners. Along with many other national leaders including presidents Jefferson and Jackson, Broderick therefore favored distribution of the public domain to the landless poor through "homestead" legislation. Broderick also favored and fought for universal suffrage, protection of foreign-born minorities from discriminatory taxation, and the open election of most public officials.

Whigs and pro-Southern Chivalry Democrats had great power in the Legislature of 1853 (largely due to Gwin's control of federal patronage), and they planned to use this advantage to hand-pick the delegates to a constitutional convention that would divide the state without further public debate. Broderick and his allies, however, fought this proposal at every turn. Finally, after a prolonged parliamentary struggle, they struck upon a simple, irresistible proposal: that the people of California be allowed to vote on - to approve or disapprove - any recommendation that might be put forward by the proposed constitutional convention.

Some legislative reporters called Broderick's amendment a simple "correction" of a "technical oversight," but in fact the proposed amendment killed the whole scheme, for even Gwin's most dedicated and optimistic supporters knew that the people of California were generally opposed to slavery and would not vote to divide the state.

The great contest between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces was also evident in many other ways throughout the year that Benicia was the capital. Gwin's seat in the U.S. Senate became the focal point of this contest early in 1853 when rumors began to circulate about the possibility that Gwin might be appointed to President Franklin Pierce's cabinet. Broderick laid plans to take Gwin's Senate seat and stop the flow of federal patronage to pro-slavery democrats.

When Gwin was not appointed, Broderick immediately launched a direct, all-out campaign to unseat Gwin. To do this, Broderick set out to broaden his base of support in the State Senate, the body that was then empowered to select California's U.S. Senators. When the State Decocratic Convention met in Benicia in June 1853, Broderick asked the Sacramento delegation to support him. In return, Broderick and his powerful San Francisco delegation agreed to support a Sacramento man, Governor John Bigler, in his bid for re-election. Broderick and his supporters also agreed to another request made by the Sacramento delegation: that the capital be moved to Sacramento.

In September 1853, with Broderick's help, Bigler upset the odds-makers and was narrowly re-elected. On January 4, 1854, in his first major address to the fifth Legislature, the governor called for removal of the capital from Benicia due to "the insecure condition of the public archives." Benicia boosters offered to build a new brick building to house the archives -- at no cost to the state! They also offered other inducements, but the die was cast. Legislation was soon submitted, and although the debate was long and heated, it soon became clear that a majority of legislators were ready to make Sacramento the "permanent" capital.

On February 25, 1854, Governor Bigler signed the legislation and the very next day the Legislature resolved to adjourn and meet one week later in Sacramento. That same afternoon a large festive party including the governor, state officers, and members of the Legislature gaily debarked from Benicia on the paddle-wheeled river steamer Wilson G. Hunt. A grand celebration awaited them upstream in Sacramento. But the city they were leaving - Benicia, the proud "City-of-the-Straits" - was profoundly quiet. Its hear of glory was over, and its once bright future was now clouded.

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