Happy Birthday Governor Gillett!
James Norris Gillett — born on September 20, 1860 – became the GOP nominee for governor in 1906 through a deal cut between party bosses and Southern Pacific Railroad.
As a consequence, the imposing six foot four, 240-pound lawyer was dogged throughout his four-year term as being the railroad’s vassal. He was the last governor politically anointed by the seemingly all-powerful railroad.
Gillett’s orchestrated selection, combined with Southern Pacific’s unfettered sway in both houses of the Legislature, became the springboard that launched the Progressive movement in California, fueled in part by Gillett’s predecessor, George Pardee, who was denied a second term by the railroad.
The Progressive Era reached its apex under Hiram Johnson, Gillett’s successor.
Yet California’s 22nd governor, who historians say was lackadaisical in advancing his policy agenda, pushed for – and succeeded in passing — a bill prohibiting railroads from giving secret rebates or kickbacks to prized customers.
At the same time, he was criticized for approving a law — the so-called “four track bill” — giving Southern Pacific exclusive control of the state’s mountain passes, effectively stymying any competition from other carriers.
The Wisconsin native, who settled in Eureka in 1884, is also considered the father of California’s highway system.
Gillett advocated to both lawmakers and voters the merits of the $18 million State Highway Bond Act of 1909 and the resulting ribbons of concrete that would link the state’s population centers.
“A far-reaching measure for the state’s future general welfare and prosperity (that) has been excelled by any law heretofore passed,” Gillett said in his January 2, 1911 farewell message to lawmakers.
Gillett devoted a large part of his January 9, 1907 inaugural speech to urging legislators to pass a state version of the recently enacted federal Pure Food and Drug Act, which required federal inspection of meat and outlawed the sale of poisonous patent medicines.
As one of his chief arguments, the GOP governor stressed the economic value of such a law for California:
“The branding of cottonseed oil as pure California olive oil injures our olive industry; the misbranding of our wines affects our wine producers, and the placing of labels upon inferior Eastern fruit and representing it to be California fruit is a gross injustice to those engaged in canning and preserving California fruits.
“Such practice is a fraud upon the community and should be stopped.”
Lawmakers approved the law Gillett sought.
Gillett — despite raising the subject but offering no endorsement in his inaugural speech — signed California’s direct primary law, which required voters to approve gubernatorial and legislative nominees instead of party bosses and interest groups – those who handed Gillett his nomination.
Gillett also touted with “pardonable pride” a “modern and comprehensive” banking law passed in the wake of the Panic of 1907, anti-trust legislation and an “anti-racetrack gambling law.”
According to Gillett, he left the state in “splendid financial condition” with $7.2 million in state coffers and a surplus of $2 million after all bills were paid.
“The largest balance by more than $1 million ever left in the treasury at the end of any previous administration,” he said.
Gillett was also forced to rein in anti-Japanese sentiments in the Legislature, which ran afoul of President Theodore Roosevelt’s diplomatic efforts following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
In 1905, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed. A year later, their pressure led San Francisco’s school board to segregate all Japanese children, previously educated at various neighborhood public schools, at an “Oriental School.”
Roosevelt denounced the action in a December 1906 speech to Congress.
“Here and there a most unworthy feeling has manifested itself toward the Japanese [such as] shutting them out of the common schools of San Francisco,” Roosevelt said.
In an effort to tamp down the xenophobia, Roosevelt in 1907 signed what was called the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, which prohibited Japanese workers from immigrating to Hawaii or the continental United States but allowed parents, wives and children of workers already living in the United States to join their families.
That sharply reduced immigration – mostly to “mail-order brides” and mothers – but not anti-Japanese sentiment.
As Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet sailed into Yokohama harbor in 1908, California lawmakers introduced bills to segregate all Japanese school children statewide, prohibit those of Japanese ancestry from serving as corporate directors and prohibit land ownership for more than seven years.
Johnson, Gillett’s successor, signed such a bill – the Alien Land Law — in 1913.
On January 16, 1909, Roosevelt telegraphed Gillett, telling him anti Japanese legislative actions were contrary to the national interest.
Following Roosevelt’s missive, Gillett told lawmakers:
“A telegram so forcible as this from the President of the United States, is entitled to full consideration and demands that no hasty or ill-considered action be taken by this state which may involve the whole country.”
Three days after receiving Roosevelt’s telegram, Gillett issued the following statement, as reported by the New York Times:
“After conferring with the leading members of both branches of the Legislature tonight, I am convinced that no legislation directed against the Japanese will be enacted.
“I am satisfied that the people of California and particularly the members of our Legislature appreciate the efforts being made by the federal government and the representatives of Japan to stop emigration to this country of Japanese laborers, skilled and unskilled.
“There can be no doubt that the Japanese government is acting absolutely in good faith in this endeavor to prevent its people from emigrating to our country and in my judgment it would be a serious mistake while they are so doing to enact any laws directed against the Japanese people.”
On February 10, Roosevelt cabled Gillett:
“Accept my heartiest congratulations. All good Americans appreciate what you have done. Pray extend my congratulations individually to all who have aided you. I feel that the way in which California has done what was right for the nation makes it more than ever obligatory on the nation in every way to safeguard the interests of California.
“All that I personally can do toward this end, whether in public or private life, shall most certainly be done.”
Born in Viroqua Wisconsin, Gillett and his family moved north to nearby Sparta where he lived until he was 20. He earned a law degree in 1881 and, soon after, headed west living in both the Montana Territory and the Washington Territory before putting down California roots in 1884.
Gillett became a private in the Eureka Guard Company – part of the state militia – oddly based in Santa Cruz.
His only action was protection of a Humboldt County jail during the threat of anti-Chinese riots in Eureka after a stray bullet from a shooting battle between two tongs killed a city councilman. The city ultimately voted to expel the Chinese from the county.
Serving as city attorney of Eureka from 1890 to 1895 whetted Gillett’s appetite for higher political office. Elected to the state Senate in 1896, he parlayed that into a seat in Congress, serving there four years and resigning after being elected governor.
Gillett’s first wife, Adelaide Pratt, died in 1896 leaving him with two daughters and a son who died in early childhood. In 1898, he married Isabella Erzgarber, a popular socialite from San Francisco. They had a son, James.
A San Quentin prisoner plotted to have James kidnapped in the hopes the child’s return would led to a pardon. The plot was discovered and foiled.
After the family moved into the Governor’s Mansion, summer evenings were often spent chasing out bats.
Isabella was a pianist and poet, publishing Gleanings and Weavings in 1922.
The trajectory of Gillett’s political career spiked upward when he came to the attention of William Herrin, Southern Pacific’s chief counsel and the head of its Political Bureau since 1893.
The railroad had a strained relationship with incumbent Gov. George Pardee – who Roosevelt had asked to be his running mate in 1904 – that dated back to Pardee’s time as mayor of Oakland in the 1890s. Pardee’s support of conservation – one of the things that endeared him to Roosevelt – was one of several thorns for Southern Pacific.
In the 1906 election, the railroad decided it could trade up from Pardee.
Five months before the 1906 gubernatorial election, E.H. Harriman, Southern Pacific’s president hosted a Washington D.C. dinner for influential politicians and businessman.
“At that dinner Mr. Gillett was chosen to be the next governor of California, Mr. Harriman announcing in a few well-chosen words Gillett’s selection by the railroad company,” wrote muckraker Charles Edward Russell in Hampton’s Magazine.
At the GOP convention in Santa Cruz, Herrin and his south-of-the-Tehachapis lieutenant, Walter Parker, went to work to implement their boss’ desire.
A necessary ally was Abe Ruef, San Francisco’s political boss and head of their delegation.
Ruef, a lawyer, created the Union Labor Party in 1901. His political machine propped up Mayor Eugene Schmitz.
In a subsequent 1907 corruption trial, at which one of the prosecutors was Hiram Johnson, Ruef said he accepted a $14,000 bribe – “legal fee” – from Herrin to deliver the San Francisco delegation for Gillett.
Ruef also won the right to hand out jobs on San Francisco’s waterfront, then under state control.
Parker took care of the Southern California delegates. Other votes were secured through offering future political appointments.
Gillett beat Pardee on the first ballot, 591 to 233.
Gillett took umbrage to the characterization.
Besides calling for a California Pure Food and Drug Law, Gillett used his inaugural talk to encourage construction of additional transcontinental railroads and use of the state’s rivers to transport goods.
In his first year, Gillett faced the Panic of 1907 when the Stock Market’s value dropped almost 50 percent sparking a run on banks. Although the collapse of two brokerage firms was the spark that began the six-week “panic,” the chief cause was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake whose devastation pulled significant amounts of gold from the world’s major money centers.
The experience led Gillett to advocate changes in state banking laws requiring higher reserves and restrictions on loans to bank officers.
“During the late financial stringency, some of the banks of this state had on hand as low as 5 percent of their deposits and many had less than 15 percent, as required by law,” Gillett told lawmakers in his 1909 biennial message.
The Bank Act of 1909 became a model for other states.
While decrying the Legislature’s increase in the number of patronage appointments, Gillett did nothing to reduce what he called an “army of employed job holders.”
He appeared unannounced on the Assembly floor in the closing hours of its 1907 session, praising the lower house and denouncing claims by the press that lawmakers showed a “needless extravagance and wanton disregard of the people’s interests.”
This Legislature, Gillett said, would be remembered as “one of the best that ever met.”
Gillett announced he was not running for a second term in January 1910, citing the wishes of his family and the financial burden — low salary — of the office.
Upon leaving office he moved to Berkeley and opened a law office in San Francisco.
He was a lawyer and lobbyist in Washngton D.C. for the Associated Oil Company and the Oil Industry Association.
He retired in 1929 but then started another practice in 1934 in Oakland with his son. He died April 21, 1937 of heart disease.
“(Gillett’s) major difficulty lay in the fact that he was unwilling to push a legislative program. This lack of vigor and his unwillingness to oppose the Legislature causd him to lose favor with California Progressives,” write H. Brett Melendy and Benjamin Gilbert in The Governors of California.
“After his term, it came to be expected that governors would be more vigorous in developing and leading legislative programs.”
Filed under: California History
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