David A. Johnson

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History



Physical Description

4, iv, 171 leaves 28 cm.


San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851, Vigilantes -- California -- San Francisco, San Francisco (Calif.) -- Politics and government




Vigilantism has a long history in the United States stretching back to the Regulator movement in South Carolina in 1767. These extralegal movements are distinguished from spontaneous and ephemeral mob activity by their regular organization and limited life-span. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856 was the largest vigilante movement in American history. After a summer of vigilantism that included four hangings, the committee turned to politics and formed the People’s Party which dominated San Francisco's city government for the next decade. The 1856 committee is generally considered the great exemplar of American vigilantism and has received considerable attention from scholars. San Francisco’s 1856 vigilance committee regarded itself as a reorganization of that city's 1851 Committee of Vigilance. Like its more illustrious offspring, the 1851 committee hanged four men and banished many others. The vigilantes of 1851 did not, however, form a political party. Because of this some scholars have considered the work of the 1851 committee to be incomplete and have deemed it less worthy of attention than the committee of 1856. But in attempting to understand the intellectual grounding of San Francisco's vigilantes, this view is incorrect. The vigilantes in 1856 felt they were carrying on the work of the 1851 committee. Thus, to comprehend the events of 1856 it is necessary to understand the inspiration for the 1851 vigilance committee. The key to vigilantism in San Francisco lies in 1851. An understanding of the spirit which animates vigilantism is valuable because of what it reveals about American concepts of self-government. Vigilantes conceive of their their authority as springing from the same source as does that of the government: the people. San Francisco provides an extraordinary case for the study of notions about popular sovereignty in antebellum America. In order to make sense of what happened in San Francisco in 1851 this thesis first analyzes the political thought and philosophy that had developed in America to that time. It also examines the changing social ethos that came to emphasize equality. The two vigilance committees of San Francisco were a consummation of the political and social developments of antebellum America. I have relied on the extensive secondary literature for my interpretation. San Francisco in 1851 was in the midst of a singular episode in American history: the gold rush. The promise of riches made California the reification of the ideals of equality and opportunity that matured during the antebellum era. For the exploration of California and San Francisco I have used secondary sources and some primary sources, especially the Alta California, one of San Francisco’s newspapers. This reliance on the Alta was in part due to its availability. The attitudes toward vigilantism expressed by the 표L후르 were similar to other California newspapers. All of them supported the vigilantes in 1851. The episode of vigilantism in 1851 was a formative experience for the city of San Francisco. It served as an example of popular action and helped to define the limits of such action for the city's residents. The relationship between popular action and government was illuminated in San Francisco. Because of the way in which the people were endowed with power, they could create government and later defy that same government without destroying their creation.


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