California’s first legislature: The ones who started us down this road

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When teenagers whine about having to learn history – “which is like, so, pointless,” the argument is often made that “Those cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” At closer scrutiny, this argument just simply doesn’t hold water.

Just to set the record straight, I’m a history major so obviously I think there is value to studying history. It teaches you to research, sort through a large body of evidence to get to the heart of the matter and to write clearly to make your argument. However, studying history does not make you Nostradamus. In fact, historians are the first ones to say that nothing they find out is truly applicable because history is just so darn complicated. Historians leave prediction to the social scientists the way a modern chemist might leave turning lead into gold to the alchemists with a cheery: “Have at it, but you’ll never get anywhere!”
Perhaps the lesson of history is summed up in another one of those proverbs we quote, but rarely consider:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

…Whether the people involved studied history or not. Case in point –

I am currently reading Gold Rush Politics: California’s First Legislature, by Mary Jo Ignoffo. It’s a very entertaining account of how our first state constitution was written and how the state was formed by the “Legislature of a thousand drinks.” I was particularly struck by this section of the introduction which highlights some of the biggest mistakes the early legislators made:

Another major blunder was that none of the politicians entertained the possibility that the financial outlook for California might decline. The lawmakers became so enamoured of their newfound wealth, whether from gold mining, merchandising or their law professions, that they refused to contemplate a financial downturn. This combination of shortsighted planning and wishful thinking allowed them to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates to fund a treasury. California mounted a huge debt that first year, even before she was admitted to the Union.
The legislators perpetuated a “streets paved with gold” mythology about Gold Rush California. They declared there would be so much surplus wealth that taxpayers would be pleased to contribute their portion to state coffers. That rosy assumption would prove false, and Californians were not nearly so eager to pay taxes as Governor Peter Burnett and the legislators predicted.

Over 150 years later, we’re still in debt and legislators still think the streets are paved with gold. Is there a lesson there? Probably, but the people bravely leading us into the future certainly never looked back.

*Please note that Gold Rush Politics is one of a number of publications published by the Senate and available for free to Californians at the office of their respective legislators or by ordering here. You can also get a copy of the state and federal constitutions. Awesome!

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