He was a working man, trained as a stonecutter. His father, an Irish laborer, had carved large sections of the U.S. Capitol. When a genteel Southern Senator besmirched his humble origins, Senator David Broderick rose in the Senate Chamber and responded:
I say this with pain. I have not the admiration for the men of that class from whence I sprang that might be expected; they submit too tamely to oppression, and are too prone to neglect their rights and duties as citizens. But, sir the class of society to whose toil I was born, under our form of government, will control the destinies of this nation. If I were inclined to forget my connection with them, or to deny that I sprang from them, this chamber would not be the place in which I could do either. While I hold a seat here, I have but to look at the beautiful capitals adorning the pilasters that support the roof to be reminded of my father's talent and handiwork.
Broderick appreciated the anonymous immortality of the working man. But for this one-time stonecutter, fireman, and Tammany ward boss, a different kind of immortality was promised. He came to power when American democracy was being challenged to the point of disintegration. Self-styled Southern aristocrats or "chivalrists" held the nation hostage in exchange for the preservation and expansion of slavery. The spring before Broderick arrived in Washington, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks had strode into the Senate Chamber and thrashed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a heavy cane. Elsewhere, abolitionist editors were murdered, duels were fought, homes burned, and the town of Lawrence, Kansas was sacked. The Chivalrists rigged elections by despatching legions of voters into states deciding the slavery question for themselves. Once they'd executed their task, these men would turn around and go home, leaving the real residents of the state to suffer under the elected officials chosen for them.
These were evil times, the most sinister and corrupt exercise of power that America has ever seen, Watergate not barred. In the free state of California, southern Chivalrists enacted laws which enabled slave owners to continue holding men as chattel. In one celebrated case, a Mississippi man who had clearly established residence in the state (he'd set up a business and voted), attempted to force his one-time slave to return with him. Though the California Supreme Court ruled that, technically, Archy Lee was free under the laws of California, a certain lenience was shown towards his former owner. This time, the Court decided, it would allow the man to take his "property" back to Mississippi. Only a vigilant patrol of free blacks and white abolitionists at the port of San Francisco, and the intervention of the U.S. Commissioner, saved Lee.¹
In Senator David Broderick, who believed that all men deserved a fair wage for their labor, the Californian Chivalrists had an enemy. In his colleague, Senator William Gwin, they had a pawn. The Federal Customs House in San Francisco was known as "the Virginia poor house" because of all the Gwin men who held positions there. Though revisionist historians sometimes degrade Broderick as a "corrupt politician" because of his Tammany training, an evaluation of the record shows it is Gwin who used his position for personal gain and the gain of his friends. In one famous incident, Broderick and Gwin clashed over the proposed Federal purchase of Lime Point for $200,000. Broderick observed that the land was not worth more than $7000 and that the proposed purchase of 23,000 acres was far in excess of what the government needed for a lighthouse and fortifications. Gwin maneuvered, but larger national questions soon shoved the local issues of patronage and corruption aside.
The admission of Kansas gave the Chivalrists the opportunity to tear open the chest of the nation and hold it's democratic heart hostage. Though Kansas voters clearly rejected the constitution proposed by slavery proponents, Democratic President James Buchanan, who might be termed a Southerner with a Pennsylvania accent and breeding, sought to get Kansas admitted under the unpopular Lecomptom Constitution. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was the first Democratic Senator to rise in opposition to his own party and he was soon joined by others, including Senator Broderick. "I do not intend," Broderick told the Senate,
"because I am a member of the Democratic party to permit the president of the United States, who was elected by that party, to create civil war in the United States. The only thing that has astonished me in this whole matter is the forbearance of the people of Kansas. If they had taken the delegates to the Lecomptom convention and flogged them, or cut their ears off and driven them out of the country, I would have applauded the act."
Later he observed: "There are six millions of people interested in the extension of slavery. There are twenty millions of free men to contend for these territories out of which to carve themselves homes where labor is honorable." He pointed to his home state as a place where hard labor, without which King Gold could not have been pulled from the Sierra foothills, was held in a proper place of honor and even engaged in by men with professional qualifications. King Gold, he argued, was the true ruler of the country. Without it, the pretender King Cotton would have no market.
The Chivalrist-controlled California Legislature attempted to bind its Senators to vote for the Lecomptom Constitution, but Broderick would have none of it. Broderick rejected the resolution and appealed to popular opinion, which he was certain would join him in repudiating Lecomptom. But when the Thirty-Fifth Congress adjourned in June, 1859, Broderick returned to California deeply depressed. He implied to his Washington allies that he might resign or die. To his friends in New York, he said "You will see me no more." The months ahead, he knew, would entangle him in one of the bitterest campaigns in California history. Moreover, he dreaded the steps which the Chivalrists might take to silence him.