The First State Legislature

The “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” is the unmerited sobriquet remembering the first State Legislature of California held here in San Jose in late1849 and early 1850.  The elected senators and assemblymen were all very young men—most of whom had been in California for less than two years—with little or no training in law, and yet they made some of the most important laws governing our state, most of which are still in effect today.  The total budget for the first year of operation was $348,000.

The first legislature met under very trying circumstances.  San Jose was unable to provide anything like adequate housing, meeting places or recreational facilities.  During the year the legislature met here, 36 inches of rain fell from the sky. Today, one cannot imagine what it was like to have so much rain at a time when there were no paved streets, no sidewalks and most houses and tents had leaky roofs. Safe drinking water was non-existent as there was no proper water system, only surface wells and the acequias (water ditches), and cholera was prevalent.  So it was not uncommon to have drink that could be trusted, be it wine, brandy, whisky or beer.

The first legislators came from all over the state, but the mining districts of Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties elected more than half the representatives.  San Jose sent one man to the senate while Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties sent four each.  In the assembly, San Jose sent three, Los Angeles two and Sacramento sent nine members.  One of the major questions that arose was whether to follow English common law, or civil law derived from Roman, French and Mexican sources.  Of course English common law exercises the rights of the individual whereas Roman law derives from the will of a king or prince.  Slavery was always a major question just before the Civil War, and while the Constitutional Convention held in Monterey two months earlier in October 1849 agreed that California would be a free state, there was still great agitation from pro-slavery states.

The boundaries of the state were subject to question.  Only the Pacific Ocean on the west was fixed.  The eastern boundary was not yet determined and was thought to extend from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains of Desert (Utah), where the Mormons were establishing their state.

The first elected Governor, Peter Burnett, stated in his memoirs: “The first session of our legislature was the best we ever had.  The members were honest, indefatigable workers.  The long-continued rainy season and the want of facilities for dispatching business were great obstacles in their way.  Besides, they had to begin at the beginning and create an entirely new code of statute law, with but few authorities to consult.  Under the circumstances, their labors were most credible.”

Judge McKinstry, a member of the first legislature, later said, “The pioneer legislature passed four-fifths of all the general laws now on the statute books; I have yet to learn that it was ever charged that any measure was carried by corrupt or sinister influence.”

Theodore Henry Hittell, in his book “History of California,” states: “In the slang phrase of the day, the legislature of 1850 was called ‘The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks.’ Whatever truth there may have been in the designation, it is certain that no legislature has ever sat in the state that did more work, more important work, or better work.  If anything is to be said about the drinking of such a body, it ought to be something similar to the answer attributed to Lincoln about Grant.  When complaint was made that Grant drank too much whiskey, Lincoln replied that he would like to get the brand of that whiskey to give to his other generals.”

In his book “Thirty-First Star,” author James Scherer writes: “Even with the inducement of free liquor always on tap, the drinking was not general.  The title coterie that Senator Thomas Jefferson Green gathered about him had no influence upon the working members.  Well would it have been for California had every succeeding legislature been as honest and efficient as this pioneer body.”

The “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” derived from a statement made by Senator Green who had a room amply supplied with free liquor and would announce after a session was adjourned, “Come, let’s take a thousand drinks.” Sam Houston, also a Texan, later said of Green, “He has all the characteristics of a dog, except fidelity.” 

Fate dealt San Jose a cruel blow with the El Nino-type rains, for if it had been a drought year and if adequate housing had been available, San Jose would probably still be the center of state government.

6 Comments

  1. Len, thanks for the history. To bad San Jose didn’t make it as the state capitol. That way it would be easier to keep track of all the political crooks. Now we need to spread our net to wide to catch them all.

  2. Leonard,  your last remark is the one I want to know about most.

    Can you expand on reasoning behind, and key decisions that were made around moving the capital from SJ to Sacramento?  The wording you used would indicate that from the very beginning all the way to stem cell applications, this town hasn’t been prepared to be all it could be.

  3. Gonzo for Governor

    You heard it here first. Straight from the presses of the SJ Murky News, and the K Not in the know TV (KNTV)

    Gonzo pledged to a sitting room only crowd at the newly renovated san jose performing arts building.
    Stating that he pledges that by the time his term in Sacramento is over, He will bring Baseball and Bart to Sacramento. He said that Sacramento is a major league city, being the capital of the 4th largest economy in the world. He further states to pledge to make Sacramento the 10th largest city in the Country and be more populous then San Jose.

    When asked about this, he stated that what I learned to do in San Jose, I will do for the whole state of California and Sacramento.

    He also pledged that if he is elected Governor, that will also bring a great garbage contract for the rest of California.

  4. On page 80 of my dad’s book on the city, he relates two stories on the origin of the name: The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks. His scene has a lot of liquor going down and notes that the appellation was valid. (The book is now available online as an eBook from the library.)

    As for the city’s losing the capital, the Gold Rush caused a big starboard shift in the state’s population, and it became more practical to put the government closer to the population. Leonard’s noted an already high proportion of legislators from the Mother Lode.

    Another starboard shift occurred during the convention here when somebody cried that gold had been discovered along the Coyote Creek. The poor sergeant at arms had a terrible time maintaining a quorum, what with gold having really been discovered farther away, but this was too much, or so the Alta California in San Francisco reported. As I read that article, I began to wonder how much was tongue-in-cheek and if San Jose putdowns had already started in 1850.

    The city at that time was financially behind and had to resort to civic-minded citizens such as Jim Reed to finance the building of the Statehouse. He and his descendants may still be looking for their money from the city, that being the case described about the time of WW I.

    Jim Arbuckle

  5. Speaking of influence, power, corruption etc.

    The History of our State Capital was one of the first big lobbying efforts.

    After the debacle in San Jose, General Vallejo offered land and buildings on his property, notably the City of Vallejo.  When the Legislature arrived the buildings and accomodations were only half done.  It seems Vallejo was not built in a day.

    Charges of incompetence and broken contract were put aside while the legislature met in Sacramento temporarily, moving back to Vallejo the next year.  The buildings were still not up to snuff.  So the legislature made a hasty move to the Courthouse in Benecia.  A scenic spot that served for 13 months.

    But the backroom dealings were not over.  Sacramento came up with what was essentually a bribe, a most lucrative offer of free land and extra accomodations and luxuries for the lawmakers.

    Can you believe we don’t know who all was involved because there were no rules on lobbying? 

    The State Capital was stolen from San Jose by Vallejo, then stolen again by the special interests in Sacramento—who gave free land to the government without a vote!

    Heresy!  It seems the City fathers of Sacramento were content with the economic advantage of having the Capital in Sacramento.  Anybody who wants to compare the weather in Sacto to San Jose has to wonder why the government would ever choose there over here.

    It’s simple—money and free land.  Plus they knew if thr deal was made in San Jose, they would have to go through an extensive RFP process, that the populace would insist on several investigations after the fact and the Governor of the State would face censure or worse.

    Maybe it is better they chose Sacto.

  6. I heard you talk on Tom McEs radio program many years ago about San Jose’s first fire engine.  If my recollection serves, you said at that time that it was being restored by someone.  Is that still the case and if so who is the person doing the restoration?