Constitution of the Committee of Vigilantes of San Francisco (Adopted 15 May 1856)

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The 1848 Gold Rush brought a wealth of prospectors to California. The population of San Francisco, an established outpost since 1776, grew from nine hundred to ten thousand in one year. With the sudden influx of prospectors and great wealth, this city of tents and makeshift buildings was rife with corruption. A popular movement to address this corruption, the San Francisco Vigilantes Committee, was first formed in June 1851. The committee felt that the city did not provide adequate security for either life or property, and they took issue with the courts, the police, the prison-keepers and the city government at large, with particular attention to allegations that ballot boxes were being stolen and stuffed. After the first vigilance committee hanged several men, they disbanded in September 1851, only to reform as the Second Vigilance Committee in 1856.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also California ; Gold Rush ; San Francisco ; Vigilantes .

Whereas, has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco that there is no security for life and property, either under the regulations of society, as it at present exists, or under the laws as now administered; and that by the association together of bad characters, our ballot boxes have been stolen and others substituted, or stuffed with votes that were not polled, and thereby our elections nullified, our dearest rights violated, and no other method left by which the will of the people can be manifested; therefore, the citizens whose names are hereunto attached, do unite themselves into an association for maintenance of peace and good order of society—the preservation of our lives and property, and to insure that our ballot boxes shall hereafter express the actual and unforged will of the majority of our citizens; and we do bind ourselves, each unto the other, by a solemn oath, to do and perform every just and lawful act for the maintenance of law and order, and to sustain the laws when faithfully and properly administered; but we are determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary, assassin, ballot-box stuffer, or other disturbers of the peace, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice; and to secure the objects of this association, we do hereby agree:

  1. That the name and style of this association shall be the Committee of Vigilance, for the protection of the ballot-box, the lives, liberty and property of the citizens and residents of the City of San Francisco.
  2. That there shall be rooms for the deliberations of the Committee, at which there shall be some one or more members of the Committee appointed for that purpose, in constant attendance at all hours of the day and night, to receive the report of any member of the association, or of any other person or persons of any act of violence done to the person or property of any citizens of San Francisco; and if, in the judgment of the member or members of the Committee present, it be such an act as justifies or demands the interference of this Committee, either in aiding in the execution of the laws, or the prompt and summary punishment of the offender, the Committee shall be at once assembled for the purpose of taking such action as the majority of them, when assembled, shall determine upon.
  3. That it shall be the duty of any member or members of the Committee on duty at the committee rooms, whenever a general assemblage of the Committee be deemed necessary, to cause a call to be made, in such a manner as shall be found advisable.
  4. That whereas, an Executive Committee, has been chosen by the General Committee, it shall be the duty of said Executive Committee to deliberate and act upon all important questions, and decide upon the measures necessary to carry out the objects for which this association was formed.
  5. That whereas, this Committee has been organized into subdivisions, the Executive Committee shall have the power to call, when they shall so determine, upon a board of delegates, to consist of three representatives from each division, to confer with them upon matters of vital importance.
  6. That all matters of detail and government shall be embraced in a code of By-Laws.
  7. That the action of this body shall be entirely and vigorously free from all consideration of, or participation in the merits or demerits, or opinion or acts, of any and all sects, political parties, or sectional divisions in the community; and every class of orderly citizens, of whatever sect, party, or nativity, may become members of this body. No discussion of political, sectional, or sectarian subjects shall be allowed in the rooms of the association.
  8. That no person, accused before this body, shall be punished until after fair and impartial trial and conviction.
  9. That whenever the General Committee have assembled for deliberation, the decision of the majority, upon any question that may be submitted to them by the Executive Committee, shall be binding upon the whole; provided nevertheless, that when the delegates are deliberating upon the punishment to be awarded to any criminals, no vote inflicting the death penalty shall be binding, unless passed by twothirds of those present and entitled to vote.
  10. That all good citizens shall be eligible for admission to this body, under such regulations as may be prescribed by a committee on qualifications; and if any unworthy persons gain admission, they shall on due proof be expelled; and believing ourselves to be executors of the will of the majority of our citizens, we do pledge our sacred honor, to defend and sustain each other in carrying out the determined action of this committee, at the hazard of our lives and our fortunes.

SOURCE: Lawson, J. D., ed. American State Trials Vol. XV. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1914–1936.

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Constitution of the Committee of Vigilantes of San Francisco (Adopted 15 May 1856)

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