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Frontier Politics

June 2024
1min read

The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California

by Arthur Quinn, Crown Publishers, 352 pages .

“This is the story of two men,” the author writes, “—of how they achieved great power and how through their implacable rivalry they destroyed each other.” The gold rush brought every sort of prospector to California, including political fortune seekers hoping to ride the movement for statehood all the way to the U.S. Senate. William Gwin, a former Southern planter, stepped off the steamer Panama at San Francisco in June of 1849. He traveled up and down the territory promoting statehood, attended the Constitutional Convention at Monterey in 1850, and (along with the explorer John C. Frémont) became one of the state’s first two senators.

Gwin’s future nemesis, David C. Broderick, arrived out West the same spring; he had graduated from the New York slums and Tammany Hall. In time this street-fighting Democrat became the perfect goad in the state Democratic party to the genteel Senator Gwin. Their long rivalry drives this skillful book to its sad finish, while the state of California grows magnificently around them. Arthur Quinn, a Berkeley professor of rhetoric, shows how Broderick battled the state’s first anti-immigrant vigilante movements and struggled to maintain a tenuous populist alliance while the aristocratic Gwin brought home the projects that built his state. Finally, campaign rhetoric in the ugly climate of the slavery crisis led one of them into a fatal duel in 1860. Quinn delivers an intelligent and satisfying political saga.

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