The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
But now, at the very sources, the full flood of the somewhat turbid tide of prosperity was beginning to fail. The ebb had not yet reached the civic consciousness. It would have required a philosopher, and a detached philosopher at that, to have connected cause and effect, to have forecast the inevitable trend of events. If there were any philosophers they were not detached! Nobody had discovered the simple truth that extravagance, graft, waste, cost money; and that the money must come from somewhere. Realization on its property and taxes were the twin sources of the city's revenues. The property was now about all sold or swindled away. Remained the taxes. And it is a self-evident truth that people will pay high taxes cheerfully only so long as they themselves are making plenty of money easily.
Up to this period such had been the case. Prices had been high, wages had been high, opportunities had been many. Enormous profits had been the rule. Everybody had invariably made money. These conditions upset the mental balance of the shipping merchants back East. A madness seemed to obsess them for sending goods to California. The mere rumour of a want or a lack was answered by immense shipments of that particular commodity. The first cargo to arrive supplied the want; all the rest simply broke the market. It was a gamble as to who should get there first. The immediate and picturesque consequence was a fleet of beautiful clipper ships, built like racing yachts, with long clean lines and snowy sails. They made extraordinarily fast voyages, and they promptly condemned to death the old- fashioned, slow freight carriers. Indeed, four-hundred odd of these actually rotted at anchor in the bay; it had not paid to move them! Some of these clippers gained vast reputations: the Flying Cloud, the White Squall, the Typhoon, the Trade Wind. The markets were continually in a state of glut with goods sold at auction. This condition tightened the money market, which in turn reacted on other branches of industry. Again, the great fires of '49-'53 resulted in the erection of too many fireproof buildings. Storage was needed, and rentals were high, so everybody plunged on storehouses. By '54 many hundreds of them stood vacant, representing loss. At that period the first abundance of the placers began to fall off.
Agriculture was beginning to be undertaken seriously; and while this would be an ultimate source of wealth, its immediate effect was to diminish the demand for imported foodstuffs--another blow to a purely mercantile city.
All this made for excitement, some immediate gain, but a sure ultimate loss. Markets fluctuated wildly. A ship in sight threw operators into a fever. No one knew what she might be carrying, or how she would, affect prices. It was, therefore, positively unsafe to keep-many goods is stock. Quick, immediate sales were the rule. And failures were many.
Now in these middle fifties the pinch was beginning at last to itself felt. Everybody was a little vague about it all, and nobody had gone so far as to formulate his dissatisfactions or his remedies. The tangible result was the formation of two as yet inchoate elements, representing the extremes of ideas and of interests.
The first of these elements--that can with equal justice be called the parasitic or the middleman class--consisted in itself of several sorts of people. The nucleus was a small, intellectually honest set of men who believed, in the law per se, in the sacredness of formal institutions in the constitution, and in the subservience of the individual to the institution. This was temperamental. Behind them were many much larger groups of those needed either the interpretation or the protection of the law for their private interests. These were of all sorts from honest literal-minded dealers, through shady contractors and operators, down to grafters and the very lowest type of strong-arm bullies. The tone and respectability came from the first, the practical results from the second. The first class had a genuine intellectual contempt for men whose minds could not see--or at least would not accept--the same subtleties that it did. Its members were fond of such phrases as the "lawless mob," or the "subversion of time-honoured institutions." This small, subjectively honest, conservative, specially trained element must not be forgotten in the final estimate of what later came to be known as the "Law and Order" party.
On the other hand was first of all an equally small nucleus of thinking men whose respect for the law, merely as law, was not so profound; men who were, reluctantly, willing to admit that when law completely broke down in encompassing justice, individualism was justified in stepping in. Behind them was a vast body of more or less unthinking men who recognized the indubitable facts that the law had become a farce, that justice had degenerated to tricks, and who were, therefore, instinctively against law, lawyers, and everybody who had anything to do with them.
Strangely enough this made for lawlessness on both sides. Those who believed in "law and order" committed crime or misdemeanour or mere injustice, sure of escape through some technicality. Those who distrusted courts administered justice illegally with their own hands! Nor was this merely in theory. San Francisco at that time was undoubtedly the most corrupt and lawless city in the world. Street shootings, duels, robberies, ballot-box stuffing, bribery, all the crimes traceable to a supine police and venal or technical courts were actually so commonplace as to command but two or three lines in the daily papers. Justice was completely smothered under technicalities and delays.
The situation would have been intolerable to any people less busy than the people of that time. For political corruption in a vigorous body politic is not, as pessimists would have us believer an indication of incipient decay, but only an indication that a busy people are willing to pay that price to be left alone, to be relieved of the administration of their public affairs, When they get less busy, or the price in corruption becomes too high, then they refuse to pay. The price Francisco was paying becoming very high, not only in money, but in other and spiritual things. She could still afford to pay it; but at the least pressure she would no longer afford it. Then she would act.