Another Historical Allusion in Gov. Brown’s Inaugural Speech

Near the beginning of his inaugural address on January 3, Gov. Jerry Brown thanked his GOP predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for his “tireless efforts to keep California the Great Exception that it is.”

The Democratic governor may have been giving a tip of the hat to a 1949 book by author, journalist and lawyer Carey McWilliams called, California The Great Exception.

At California’s centennial, McWilliams examined California and the forces that shaped it, showing – candidly and with clarity — why the state is different from anywhere else in the country.

“What I have attempted…is in the nature of an essay in understanding – a guide to an understanding of California,” he writes at the close of the first chapter.

“The following chapters might be described as the notes, the working papers, of a California journalist; the summation, not of California, but of my effort to understand California.

“There is, however, a theme which runs through the following pages – that California is “the great exception” among the American states.

“There is also a purpose, namely, to isolate the peculiar dynamics underlying California’s remarkable expansion.”

The Gold Rush was the initial transformer of the state, McWilliams writes, increasing its population from some 16,000 to more than 160,000 in one year.

Unlike neighboring states, California didn’t languish as a territory; it became a state in 1850.

The wealth from the Gold Rush sped the state’s development and allowed it to “lord over” less prosperous states.

California had no “Indian problem” because pioneers swiftly annihilated them.

He discusses the state’s agriculture industry and its use of migrant labor, a topic he examined in a 1939 book, Factories in the Field.

Gov. Culbert Olson, who shared McWilliams’ liberalism, offered him the job of running California’s Division of Immigration and Housing.

McWilliams fought to improve working conditions and pay but left in 1942, when incoming governor Earl Warren pledged his first act would be to fire McWilliams.

California The Great Exception is viewed by many as a ‘must-read” in understanding why California is the way it is.

“Still the single best analysis of California’s distinctive path of economic and social development by the state’s most accurate observe,” says Richard Walker of the University of California at Berkeley, Brown’s alma mater.

And despite some out-of-date numbers – “someday California could have as many as 20 million residents” – the points McWlliams makes and his analysis are remarkably sound – 61 years later.

He went on to be the editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975 and was the first American reporter to reveal that the CIA was training guerillas for the Bay of Pigs invasion.


Filed under: California History

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