The More Things Change…

As adopted December 19, 1849 – four days into California’s first legislative session – the 6th Rule of the Senate reads:

“No member shall speak to another or otherwise interrupt the business of the Senate or read any newspaper while the journals or public papers are reading and while the President is putting a question, no senator shall walk out of, or across the house, nor while a senator is speaking pass between him and the chair.”

While laudable, the rule met the same fate as many other legislative efforts to regulate human behavior — particularly their own.

Englishman William Kelly, writing in 1851, observed that within months of its establishment Senate Rule # 6 was being routinely ignored.

 In his exhaustively titled Excursion to California Over the Prairie, Rocky Mountains and Great Sierra Nevada With a Stroll Through the Diggings and Ranches of that Country, Volume 2, Kelly says, commencing on Page 308:

“I visited the houses of the Senate and Assembly, both of which august bodies are accommodated under the same roof, one downstairs (and) the other above. But, by a sort of solecism in the arrangement, the Senate, or Upper House, occupy the lower apartment, which is a large, ill-lit, badly ventilated room, with a low ceiling and a rough railing a little inside the door, beyond which none but the elect may pass.

“Each member had a rush-bottomed armchair and a small desk with stationery that was not in much requisition. At the further end, the Speaker was perched in a species of pulpit; the floor was covered with a number of little carpets, of various shapes and patterns, looking as if every member contributed a patch to make up the robe, which had quite a mosaic appearance, the idea of antiquity being assisted by the threadbare state of the whole.

“A slip of paper was stuck with wafers on the door as you entered, labeled “Wait for a Pause,” reminding me of the familiar inscriptions on those of the billiard-rooms at home, ” Wait for the Stroke,” which, from the tumult inside, would be the more opposite of the two, from the great probability of its ending in blows.

“The other apartment is precisely the same size but has the advantage of greater loftiness and exhibits at once the difference of grade betwixt the two bodies in the style of the furniture—plain common chairs, flat deal tables and a strip of matting thrown where the feet are erroneously supposed to rest, being the extent of accommodation, a paltry difference, at best, and, as it appeared to me, at variance with the republican doctrine of equality and the ‘genius of free institutions.’

“A similar notice was stuck on this door but were I to wait at the threshold of either house for a pause, I should wait for the daily adjournment, for the noise and jabbering was as incessant as the twittering of a flock of swallows chatting over their intended migration.

“Nothing can be more remote from the regularity, decency or decorum of deliberative assemblies than the proceedings of these bodies. There was no order of debate or system of discussion but a turbulent, dinning colloquy made up of motions, interruptions, assertions and contradictions; several members generally on their legs at the same time, and those with legs on the tables, adding to the tumult by the music of their heels.

“I never could catch the faintest idea of the subject under consideration nor is it possible that the merits of any measure can be sifted under such a species of discussion. They meet about 10 o’clock a.m. and are let loose for dinner at 1 o’clock, when they come out with a rush, like so many overgrown schoolboys.” (Emphasis added.)


(Editor’s Note: These rules of conduct for the upper house are contained in a report by Nathaniel Bennett, one of California’s original 16 senators, published in full on Page 401 of the Journal of the Senate at Their First Session Begun and Held at Puebla de San Jose. Bennett was a New York native and graduate of Yale. He came to California in 1849 in search of gold but quickly changed his mind and opened a San Francisco law practice. Within five days of the filing of his report, Bennett was elected by his colleagues as one of the first two associate justice of the California Supreme Court and resigned his senate seat. He left the court after two years, saying the $10,000 salary – paid in scrip – was too little. He returned to his law practice and died in 1886. San Franciscans called on  Bennett to give the speech celebrating California’s statehood in 1850 and, in 1869, the speech commemorating completion of the Pacfic Railroad.)

(Editor’s Note, #2: Kelly’s ‘genius of free institutions’ quote likely comes from an 1848 book by Frederick Grimke, an Ohio jurist, called Considerations on the Nature and Tendency of Free Institutions. See Page 240. The 544-page tome is a well-reasoned defense of democracy.)


Filed under: California History

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