The First State Legislature

The “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” is the unmerited sobriquet remembering the first State Legislature of California held here in San Jose in late1849 and early 1850. The elected senators and assemblymen were all very young men—most of whom had been in California for less than two years—with little or no training in law, and yet they made some of the most important laws governing our state, most of which are still in effect today. The total budget for the first year of operation was $348,000.

The first legislature met under very trying circumstances. San Jose was unable to provide anything like adequate housing, meeting places or recreational facilities. During the year the legislature met here, 36 inches of rain fell from the sky. Today, one cannot imagine what it was like to have so much rain at a time when there were no paved streets, no sidewalks and most houses and tents had leaky roofs. Safe drinking water was non-existent as there was no proper water system, only surface wells and the acequias (water ditches), and cholera was prevalent. So it was not uncommon to have drink that could be trusted, be it wine, brandy, whisky or beer.

The first legislators came from all over the state, but the mining districts of Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties elected more than half the representatives. San Jose sent one man to the senate while Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties sent four each. In the assembly, San Jose sent three, Los Angeles two and Sacramento sent nine members. One of the major questions that arose was whether to follow English common law, or civil law derived from Roman, French and Mexican sources. Of course English common law exercises the rights of the individual whereas Roman law derives from the will of a king or prince. Slavery was always a major question just before the Civil War, and while the Constitutional Convention held in Monterey two months earlier in October 1849 agreed that California would be a free state, there was still great agitation from pro-slavery states.

The boundaries of the state were subject to question. Only the Pacific Ocean on the west was fixed. The eastern boundary was not yet determined and was thought to extend from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains of Desert (Utah), where the Mormons were establishing their state.

The first elected Governor, Peter Burnett, stated in his memoirs: “The first session of our legislature was the best we ever had. The members were honest, indefatigable workers. The long-continued rainy season and the want of facilities for dispatching business were great obstacles in their way. Besides, they had to begin at the beginning and create an entirely new code of statute law, with but few authorities to consult. Under the circumstances, their labors were most credible.”

Judge McKinstry, a member of the first legislature, later said, “The pioneer legislature passed four-fifths of all the general laws now on the statute books; I have yet to learn that it was ever charged that any measure was carried by corrupt or sinister influence.”

Theodore Henry Hittell, in his book “History of California,” states: “In the slang phrase of the day, the legislature of 1850 was called ‘The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks.’ Whatever truth there may have been in the designation, it is certain that no legislature has ever sat in the state that did more work, more important work, or better work. If anything is to be said about the drinking of such a body, it ought to be something similar to the answer attributed to Lincoln about Grant. When complaint was made that Grant drank too much whiskey, Lincoln replied that he would like to get the brand of that whiskey to give to his other generals.”

In his book “Thirty-First Star,” author James Scherer writes: “Even with the inducement of free liquor always on tap, the drinking was not general. The title coterie that Senator Thomas Jefferson Green gathered about him had no influence upon the working members. Well would it have been for California had every succeeding legislature been as honest and efficient as this pioneer body.”

The “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” derived from a statement made by Senator Green who had a room amply supplied with free liquor and would announce after a session was adjourned, “Come, let’s take a thousand drinks.” Sam Houston, also a Texan, later said of Green, “He has all the characteristics of a dog, except fidelity.”

Fate dealt San Jose a cruel blow with the El Nino-type rains, for if it had been a drought year and if adequate housing had been available, San Jose would probably still be the center of state government.

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