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California: The Great Exception

Carey McWilliams
Foreword by Lewis H. Lapham
Copyright Date: 1974
Edition: 1
Pages: 391
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In 1949, lawyer, historian, and journalist Carey McWilliams stepped back to assess the state of California at the end of its first one hundred years-its history, population, politics, agriculture, and social concerns. As he examined the reasons for the prodigious growth and productivity that have characterized California since the Gold Rush, he praised the vitality of the new citizens who had come from all over the world to populate the state in a very short time. But he also made clear how brutally the new Californians dealt with "the Indian problem," the water problem, and the need for migrant labor to facilitate California's massive and highly profitable agricultural industry. As we look back now on 150 years of statehood, it is particularly useful to place the events of the past fifty years in the context of McWilliams's assessment inCalifornia: The Great Exception. Lewis Lapham has written a new foreword for this edition.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92298-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    Lewis H. Lapham

    Carey Mc William s publishedCalifornia:The Great Exceptionin 1949, and the California that he describes is the one that I remember as a boy growing up in San Francisco during the excitements of the Second World War. He writes about a port that was then the busiest on the American Pacific coast, and I can still see the crowd of ships, aircraft carriers as well as cargo vessels, riding at anchor in the bay; he mentions the names of once prominent citizens, and I can see the people in the streets dressed as characters from a script by...

    (pp. 3-7)

    With California noisily celebrating three centennials—the discovery of gold (I848); the adoption of the first state constitution (I849); and admission to the Union (I850)—a question first raised a hundred years ago and never really answered has acquired a new urgency: Is there really a state called California or is all this boastful talk?—Is this centennial only ballyhoo,— a hoax, a fraud, a preposterous imposition? The question has bobbed up again because people have always been dubious about a state whose name is something of a hoax. No one knows, of course, the origin of the word “California”...

    (pp. 8-24)

    Durrng the war Californians were aware vaguely of a phenomenal increase in population. From time to time officials made speeches heralding the dawn of aNew Westand occasional headlines hinted at a great post-war expansion. But every one was too preoccupied with the war itself to give much thought to what was happening in the state. In fact the full “shock of recognition” did not come until August, I 949, when the Bureau of the Census released a report on population shifts for the period from April I, 1940, to July I, I947· If the nation was amazed to...

    (pp. 25-38)

    If asked to name the most important respect in which California differs from the other forty-seven states, I would say that the difference consists in the fact that California has not grown or evolved so much as it has been hurtled forward, rocket-fashion, by a series of chain-reaction explosions. The rhythm of the state’s development is unlike that of the other states, and the basic explanation is to be found in a set of peculiar and highly exceptional dynamics. The existence of these underlying dynamics accounts for the tempo of social change, the foreshortening of economic processes, the speed of...

    (pp. 39-62)

    The westward movement of population in America began rather slowly; the penetration of the Allegheny ridges was, at the time, a formidable undertaking. After this first barrier had been crossed, the wave of settlement rushed westward to the edge of the Great Plains, hesitated for a moment, and then, with the discovery of gold, broke westward for California. Up to this point, certain familiar phases had characterized the expansion of the frontier: exploration, conquest of the Indians, settlement, the birth of institutions, the marking-off of boundaries, territorial government, and, finally, statehood. But this pattern was broken once the wave of...

    (pp. 63-88)

    Californians are not a unique people, but the “population” of California is quite unique. On the face of it, this would seem to be an utterly inconsistent statement; but, properly understood, it goes far toward explaining the exceptionalism of California. Populations differ in many significant respects: in their component elements; in the way these elements are held together; and in the manner in which these elements are interrelated or juxtaposed. Composition, structure, and arrangement, however, fail to exhaust the list of variables. Populations also differ in both a time and space dimension. For example, is the population new to the...

    (pp. 89-102)

    On March I4, I850, a hundred or more armed settlers, most of whom had been in California only a few months, marched through the streets of Sacramento, and, at a mass meeting, announced that henceforth they would oppose with force and violence all attempts by the courts to eject them from lands which they had occupied. Replying to this demonstration, the landowners summoned aposseand, as two groups collided in the streets, a riot ensued in which three men were killed, including the city assessor, and many more were injured. The leader of this squatters’ riot was Dr. Charles...

    (pp. 103-126)

    Thousands of American motorists have voiced protests against California’s notorious plant quarantine inspectors who vigilantly guard the borders of the state to prevent the importation of certain insects and crop-destroyers. No other state maintains a comparable service. But there is a good reason for California’s vigilance and its border inspectors might well be taken as symbols of the exceptionalism, the peculiarity, of the state’s agriculture. For these inspectors are guarding an agricultural production as fabulously rich as it is utterly unique. There is no parallel for the state's agriculture, either in this country or in the world, and, since agriculture...

    (pp. 127-149)

    The California labor movement has long occupied an altogether exceptional niche in the history of American labor. San Francisco, it has been said, is one of the best laboratories in the nation for the study of industrial relations. Developments have taken place here in a fortnight of history that in other cities have been spread over several decades. The California labor movement, to a degree that is not generally appreciated, has had an important influence on national labor trends. San Francisco was the first major seaport in the world to be thoroughly organized, and it was in this port that...

    (pp. 150-170)

    California’s Problems are, of course, as exceptional as its advantages. Among these exceptional problems none is of greater importance than the state’s seventy-year-old farm labor problem. Other states have a farm labor problem but California’s is unique in malignancy, magnitude, and virulence. Farm labor is California’s “peculiar institution” in much the same sense that chattel slavery was the South’s peculiar institution. Today as yesterday, the farm labor problem is the cancer which lies beneath the beauty, richness, and fertility of the valleys of California. For more than seventy years, a large portion of the state’s population has lived in a...

    (pp. 171-191)

    Since California was admitted to the union the nation has been vaguely aware of something “different” and “peculiar” about the politics of the state. In the 1870’s the nation, disturbed by the rise of Kearneyism in California, seriously debated whether California had “gone Communist.” Then for nearly seventy years California’s phobia about Oriental immigration continued to upset and confuse the nation. On the first Tuesday of November, 1916, the American people went to bed thinking that Charles Evans Hughes had been elected president only to discover, on Wednesday morning, that California had re-elected Woodrow Wilson. In the 1930’s Kearneyism found...

    (pp. 192-213)

    Turning From the peculiar dynamics of California politics to the contemporary scene, one finds Winston W. Crouch and Dean E. McHenry, authors of a recent book onCalifornia Government, echoing the judgment of Lord Bryce that “California politics is unique.” “Unique,” however, is hardly the right word. California is a state that lacks a political gyroscope, a state that swings and sways, spins and turns in accordance with its own peculiar dynamics. The nature of these dynamics has been suggested in the last chapter; the present deals with certain exceptional aspects of the contemporary scene. These aspects have to do...

    (pp. 214-232)

    For the past eight years California chambers of commerce have been on a glorious promotional binge. Statistics and reports have rolled from the presses and mimeograph machines in endless quantities, boasting of new “peaks” in industrial expansion, in commercial and residential construction, in the growth of western financial power, in the extension of markets. Chronic pessimists have been caught up in the exuberance of the statistical optimists and even the optimists have been surprised to see their not-toofirmly-believed-in predictions of yesteryear topped by the figures and reports of the present.

    The more one studies these reports, however, the more difficult...

    (pp. 233-248)

    California has had many booms in the first century of its existence but none like “the fabulous boom” of the last eight years. For this has been California’s first real “industrial” boom; its first real challenge to eastern industrial supremacy. During this eightyear period, the federal government has spent more than a billion dollars on the construction of new industrial plants in California, and $4oo,ooo,ooo have been invested for the same purpose by private capital. Los Angeles, which had never been thought of as an industrial center, found itself handling more than ten billion dollars in war production contracts. With...

    (pp. 249-268)

    On June 3, 1948, a thousand distinguished scientists and other dignitaries assembled on top of a granite mountain I30 miles southeast of Pasadena to take part in ceremonies dedicating the Hale Telescope: “the mightiest astronomical eye ever constructed by man for extending his power to explore the vastness of his cosmos.”¹ This new “ladder of light” and “tower to the infinite,” with its 200-inch, 15-ton mirror, now makes it possible for scientists to see and photograph island universes one billion light-years from the earth. “Climbing to the uppermost rung of his new ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ to the stars,” writes W. L....

    (pp. 269-292)

    A State with many exceptional advantages, California also has some exceptional disadvantages, and of these the scarcity of water is certainly the most important. The water problem is not one but a dozen interrelated problems, affecting every aspect of the economy of the state. Problems, of course, have various dimensions; but the water problem in California is uniquely multidimensional with each dimension being most complexly interrelated with every other. In fact the word “problem” does not accurately describe this complex of issues. The water problem in California is an ecological anagram, a sociological maze, an economic logograph. Since some new...

    (pp. 293-316)

    There is a startling paradox about the social consequences of the struggle for water in an arid environment. As a youngster in northwestern Colorado, I often heard my elders recounting tales of violent quarrels between old friends and neighbors over the perennial question of “water rights.” Somehow the phrase, “water rights,” so innocuous in itself, seemed to carry overtones of blood and violence. In an arid environment, men will fight for water with a truly implacable bitterness, a bitterness beyond reason and entreaty. For if there is not enough water to meet all needs, there is really no basis for...

    (pp. 317-340)

    The importance of Colorado River water to Southern California is matched by the importance of the Central Valley Project to northern and central California. The development of the Colorado and completion of the Central Valley Project involve vastly important and enormously complex issues: social, fiscal, political, and technological. But vital as both projects are to California, there is little overlapping or connection between them; each stands, so to speak, on its own legs. Little of the water in the Colorado originates in California; but all of the water involved in the Central Valley Project has its origin within the state....

    (pp. 341-368)

    Earlier chapters of this book have dealt with various California problems; this final chapter will be concerned withthe problem of California.Is there, then, a California Problem and, if so, what makes California a problem? The emergence of a new center of social, economic, and political power, in any area, will invariably upset the antecedent balance of power and disturb the relationships based on the prior equilibrium. The truism of international politics also applies, of course, to the balance of power between regions and states. In the last hundred years, the gradual emergence of a new center of power...

  22. INDEX
    (pp. 369-378)