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Creating California's Constitution

created Jun 13, 2016 10:31 AM

Note:  The following article is excerpted from the June 2016 edition of Teach the Election, "California Politics."  For the full issue (and all other issues), subscribe to the Teach the Election series.

by Shelley Brooks

In 1849 a group of delegates gathered in Monterey to draft a constitution in anticipation of statehood. After only thirty years the state legislature and voters agreed that the rapidly growing state was in need of a more robust guiding document. The 1879 constitution reflects the social and economic circumstances of the late nineteenth century, including a desire to reign in big business, make banks and corporations more accountable to the people, provide improved opportunities for farmers, and restrict Chinese immigration in response to demands from other laborers who resented the competition. The constitution also established a number of state agencies, provided for independent universities, and explicitly granted women property ownership rights.

California was positioning itself to be an increasingly important state in the West and in the Union, but nearly everyone understood that railroad reform was in order if the state was to thrive. The Southern Pacific Railroad was an economic juggernaut, controlling all of California’s passenger and freight rail service and the bulk of the river and ocean transport as well. Moreover, the Southern Pacific held title to 11% of all land in the state. It used this considerable power to influence legislators to create legislation beneficial to railroad interests and to create shipping rates that enriched the company and created hardship for the farmers and business people reliant upon the railroad. The 1879 Constitution attempted to address these issues by creating a railroad commission that had the power to set shipping rates and enforce compliance, but the Southern Pacific remained powerful enough that it virtually controlled the commissioners.

Despite the nearly six month deliberation process involved in creating the constitution, and the diverse and large number of delegates to the constitutional convention, very little of the hoped-for reform came out of this new document. It did, however, have an impact on the Chinese in California. The state constitution responded to the demands of non-Chinese laborers to restrict the ways that Chinese could work in California, including policy that forbade corporations or public works projects to employ Chinese “except in punishment for a crime.” In addition, the state constitution allowed for cities to exclude Chinese inhabitants if they wished to do so. This anti-Chinese sentiment reverberated throughout the country and in 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to prevent immigration of working class Chinese into the country.

It would be decades before California realized some of the political and economic goals of its constitution. Under Governor Hiram Johnson (1911-17), progressive politics made great headway in reigning in the special interests of the state. Former president Teddy Roosevelt remarked in 1911 that California exhibited “the beginning of a new era in popular government,” that was “the greatest advance ever made by any state for the benefit of its people.” In this year alone, voters approved 22 constitutional amendments, and real reform happened in the realm of railroad and public utility regulation, government operation and finance, direct democracy (initiatives, referendums, recalls), woman suffrage, public morality (bans on gambling, prostitution), and workplace insurance. The Progressive Era was notable for its rush of legislation, but over the past century there have been hundreds of additional constitutional amendments that have shaped California’s state governance.