Vigilante Justice


Their president set them an example. Having accepted reluctantly the leadership urged upon him, this man who had wished to serve the Vigilantes as “a common soldier, a common worker” had become a marked man, not only in California but in the eyes of the watching nation. He could surely have risen to high places in California politics. He was urged to accept senatorial nomination and was later suggested by Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun and others as the man to oppose Grover Cleveland for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. He did not lift a finger to secure support for either office or for any other.

Ten days after the Committee of Vigilance had its final parade, William Coleman left San Francisco on his postponed trip to join his wife in New York.

The Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856 were engendered in crises of crime, when men’s emotions were high and they were more concerned with action than with the causes of civic corruption. But men like Coleman saw the truth: that bad crime and bad government resulted from ethical slackness and political irresponsibility on the part of San Francisco’s citizens, even of good citizens like themselves. The people of the Golden Gate were reaping in the corruptions of others what they had sown in their own past indifference.

The Vigilantes raised constitutional issues they did not solve and which remain quiescent, but unanswered, a century later. No man can solve those issues for all times and conditions. The emergency right of free men to overrule their own officers of government will always be determined by situations and not by laws. What the Vigilante movement demonstrated, not for the first time or the last, is that free men, sufficiently harassed, will claim and exert those rights and that the manner in which they do so is in great part determined by the character and quality of their leaders.

Democracy keeps its reason and its elevation only when it produces leaders who are themselves men of elevated standards. Its social system must produce such men for such emergencies. But democracy is not leadership alone; only when its citizens play their parts, constantly and consistently, in the civic duties and ethical integrity of their communities, can social corruption, political crises, and self-appointed Vigilantes be avoided. That is the lesson for which James King of William died and William Coleman lived.