David C. Broderick: A Political Portrait
July 1, 1971
David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
David C. Broderick: A Political Portrait.
By David A. Williams. (San Marino, Ca., The Huntington Library, 1969). Notes. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 274 pages.
Reviewed by H. Marshall Goodwin, Jr., who teaches California history at Fresno State College. Professor Goodwin received his B.A. and M.A. at San Diego State College and his Ph.D. at UCLA.
California politics in the 1850’s proved extremely turbulent, in part because of the rivalry between two highly ambitious men-David C. Broderick and William McKendree Gwin-and in part because of the conflict between the free soilers and the proponents of slavery. Gwin, a well-educated aristocratic southern politician, arrived in California in 1849, immediately involved himself in politics and along with John C. Fremont became one of California’s first United States Senators. Gwin quickly assumed leadership of the southern or Chivalry faction of the Democratic party and inevitably encountered opposition from David Broderick, an opponent of slavery and an egalitarian.
Like Gwin, Broderick arrived in California in 1849 and quickly developed a political following in San Francisco. In 1850 he became a state senator and the following year was elected President of the Senate. By allying himself with John Bigler who was elected governor in 1851 and re-elected in 1853, he achieved control over the state patronage and built a political machine comparable to that of Gwin who utilized the federal patronage to strengthen the Chivalry faction. In 1854 the northern or Broderick Democrats gained control of the state legislature and Broderick, in an effort to undermine his opponent, called for the election of a successor to Gwin a year early. Both sides resorted to bribery, kidnapping and intimidation, and the legislature deadlocked over the issue. Because of the division within the Democratic Party, the Know Nothings gained increased political influence in the 1855 legislature, but no faction proved powerful enough to elect a candidate, leaving California with only one senator for two years.
At the next legislative session Broderick’s supporters held the balance of power and reversed the normal procedure by electing Broderick to the full six-year term. Broderick then forced Gwin to sign over the federal patronage before he permitted Gwin’s selection for the four-year term. That patronage agreement, however, proved worthless, for President James Buchanan liked Gwin personally and appointed only Chivalry Democrats to federal posts in California. That, plus the President’s pro-southern stance on the Kansas issue, led Broderick to denounce Buchanan publicly. In fact, Broderick’s vigorous opposition to the pro-slavery Lecompton (Kansas) constitution resulted in his being read out of the party. Moreover, his failure to obtain federal positions for his supporters greatly weakened his position in California politics.
In 1859 he returned to the state to participate in the local political campaigns and ended up in a bitter partisan fight with members of the Chivalry faction. When the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, David S. Terry, verbally attacked him, Broderick responded with similarly unflattering statements and Terry challenged him to a duel. Terry won the toss for the choice of weapons and selected pistols which had hair triggers. Broderick had never practiced with the sensitive weapons and as he raised the gun, it fired and the bullet struck the ground about eight feet in front of him. Terry then took careful aim and fired, hitting Broderick squarely in the chest. His death three days later made him a martyr for the anti-slavery forces and is credited for the defeat of the Democratic party in 1860 and 1861.
In his book David C. Broderick: A Political Portrait, David A. Williams, professor of history at California State College at Long Beach, presents a very scholarly account of Broderick’s life. He makes extensive use of government documents, newspapers, diaries and manuscripts as well as secondary materials. With his careful documentation he corrects a number of misconceptions about Broderick propounded by a Gwin supporter, James O’Meara, in Broderick and Gwin: The
Most Extraordinary Contest for a Seat in the Senate of the United States Ever Known
(1881) and even by Jeremiah Lynch in his more favorable account, The Life of David C.Broderick: A Senator o f the Fifties (1911). On the other hand, Williams tends to idealize Broderick. He stresses Broderick’s egalitarianism and desire for greater participation by the people-almost making him one of today’s radicals who are demanding power to the people-while ignoring many of the nefarious political practices of the Broderick machine in San Francisco. Although Lately Thomas’ book on Gwin, Between Two Empires: The Life Story o f California’s First Senator, William McKendree Gwin (1969)
might be considered somewhat of an antidote to Williams’ hero worshipping account of Broderick, Thomas has a far greater tendency to write in black and white terms and lacks Williams’ extensive documentation. Over all, Williams’ book provides an important reassessment of David C. Broderick and California politics of the 1850’s.