My turn: What mattered on Jan. 7, 1919

By Greg Lucas, Special to CALmatters

A century ago to the day of Monday’s swearing in of incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Golden State wasn’t the world economic and environmental leader it is in this century.

In January 1919, California had 3.3 million people, of whom fewer than 600,000 lived in Los Angeles. But it had a Progressive governor in the person of William Stephens and big plans.

On Jan. 7, 1919, Gov. Stephens gave his inaugural speech, as Newsom will 100 years later, to the day. If Stephens’ speech is any yardstick, Californians were chiefly grateful to be free of a bloody world war that had ended eight weeks earlier at the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month of 1918. The event we now celebrate as Veterans Day.

“With sad but proud hearts we gave the best of our young men for the front,” Stephens told Californians. “More than 135,000 Californians donned Uncle Sam’s uniform and went forth with resolute purpose to endure whatever of danger and sacrifice was necessary to hasten the bright day of peace.”

Of those more than 135,000 Californians, 1,747 were killed in “The War to End All Wars.”

Beyond the homage to veterans, Stephens’ speech was one of optimism: “California is this moment at the threshold of the greatest industrial era in its history.”

Stephens, a former grocer, had served three terms in Congress as a Progressive, the same party as California Gov. Hiram Johnson, who helped break the stranglehold of the railroads on California government by championing the initiative and referendum process.

Johnson’s lieutenant governor died of tuberculosis in 1916 and he asked Stephens to surrender his Congressional seat and take the post.

A few months later, Johnson won a seat in the U.S. Senate which he held until his death on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, which marked the beginning of the end of the world war that followed the war to end all wars.

So Stephens’ 1919 inaugural speech was actually his second.

His first–189 words including salutation–was delivered in March 1917 after Johnson took his Senate seat and Stephens became governor.

Cross-filing as a Progressive, Prohibition and Republican Party candidate for governor, Stephens secured the GOP nomination in 1918, pledging to carry on Johnson’s principles of government reform.

During his first two years as governor, Stephens had been dogged by his refusal to pardon Thomas Mooney, a labor leader sentenced to death for an explosion at a Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco in 1916 in which 10 people were killed and 40 injured.

Complaints about Mooney being falsely convicted came from many, including President Woodrow Wilson. Stephens commuted Mooney’s sentence to life imprisonment but refused to pardon him.

Stephens devoted some of his inaugural speech to decrying radical “Bolshevik” elements in the labor movement, describing them as “skulking wielders of the torch and contemptible setters of time-explosions.”

But some of what Stephens said in 1919 could just as easily be said today:

“Together we must face the perplexing problems which the future holds. These we must meet with courage, with sincerity and with unswerving devotion to the public good. Working in this spirit we can do much to promote the development and welfare of the people of this great state.

“I seek your help and co-operation and at all times it will be my pleasure to render to you all the assistance I can.”

Elsewhere, Stephens’ words on transparency and accountability sound like a page torn from Gov.-elect Newsom’s 2014 book, “Citizenville.”

“When the people themselves arrange, order and control public institutions all secure greater benefits from government than when the people submit to the rule of the few who regard government primarily as an agency to serve their own special or private needs.”

Stephens used his speech to note a legislative first, the first “Year of the Woman:”

The 1918 election brought Grace Dorris, Esto Broughton, Elizabeth Hughes, and Anna Saylor to the Assembly – seven years after female Californians received the right to vote and nearly two years before ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“For the first time women are sitting as members of the California Legislature. I desire to welcome them among us. I am sure their influence and their work will prove highly beneficial to the state.

“California owes much to its splendid women and many of our best laws and improved conditions are due directly to woman’s participation in public affairs equally with men. It is fitting that the women of this state who live under the laws should have a voice in making these laws.”

Nearly one-third of the current 120-member Legislature that Gov. Newsom will work with are women, 23 Assembly members and 13 senators.

Stephen lost his bid for a second term in the 1922 GOP primary. But many of the words he used to set the tone of his governorship echo to this day.


Greg Lucas is California State Librarian, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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