Election Day: The 1863 Campaign for California Governor

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The polls are open in California for a little while longer, but it seems more than a long shot for the chances of G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate John Cox to pull off what would be a massive upset of favored Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.  Voter demographics weigh heavily toward the Democrats and national politics also appear to be a further factor in the likelihood of another Republican defeat for the state’s highest office.

Way back in 1863, the gubernatorial election was lopsided, though almost certainly by a larger margin than what has been forecast for today.  The race 155 years ago was between Republican Frederick F. Low of San Francisco and Democrat John G. Downey of Los Angeles and tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a Democratic State Ticket from Del Norte County (the county portion of the ticket was torn away, but the back identified its location). For most of the state’s short history to date, Democrats dominated state and, in the case of Los Angeles County, local politics.

In the first election after statehood was granted by Congress in fall 1850, Democrat John Bigler narrowly defeated his Whig opponent, securing election in the September 1851 canvass by a margin of under 500 votes.  Bigler prevailed against a different Whig two years later and the tally was better, though not much, as he had a little fewer than 1,500 votes more.


This image and the next are the two sides of an 1863 Democratic State Ticket, with former Governor John G. Downey as nominee for the position.  Former Los Angeles lawyer, Lewis C. Granger was the nominee for Attorney General and then resided in Oroville in Butte County.

Bigler ran for a third term in 1855, but California, like much of the nation was swept by a wave of nativist, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment through the short-lived American Party.  J. Neely Johnson, that party’s candidate, had nearly more than 5,000 votes than Bigler, but chose not to run for reelection.

In 1857, there were three candidates, including a new American Party standard bearer and a candidate from the newly minted Republican Party, which rose from the ashes of the Whigs for the prior year’s national elections.  The two appear to have competed for votes, as Democrat John B. Weller, cruised to an easy victory, securing almost 57% of the vote.

As national sectionalism grew and the Civil War moved closer to inevitability, the 1859 campaign saw a split among the Democrats, but it hardly mattered.  The Republican candidate was Leland Stanford, but he only managed to get a bit below 10% of the total votes.

As for the Democrats, they were divided into those who supported slavery and those who were against it—in fact,  William Workman ran, and lost, for county supervisor that year as part of the latter, while there was a proposal by Los Angeles Democrat Andrés Pico, allied with the pro-slavery wing, of the state assembly to divide the state.  The measure passed in both houses of the legislature and was forwarded to Washington, where the final decision was to be made but it was never considered by the feds.  Milton Latham, who was in the pro-slavery faction, ran away (!) with the contest, pulling nearly 60% of the vote, while the other Democrat received 30%.

The ticket was issued in Del Norte County, the state’s furthest north and adjacent to Oregon.  The county slate was torn away, leaving the state portion.

Latham, however, only served office for a few days, because David Broderick, elected U.S. Senator in the same election, was killed in a duel and the legislature appointed Latham to take his place in Washington.  Latham’s Lieutenant Governor was Downey, who’d lived in Los Angeles since 1850 and was a prosperous druggist and landowner, who also made a small fortune as a moneylender.

Downey assumed the highest office in the state, becoming California’s seventh chief executive and also had the distinction of being the first to be foreign born, as he was a native of Ireland.  Born in Roscommon County in the north-central portion of the nation in 1827, Downey migrated to America in his early teens and learned to be a druggist in Maryland.  He operated an apothecary in Cincinnati and then headed overland to Gold Rush California.

After a brief sojourn in San Francisco, Downey went south to Los Angeles and began a partnership with Dr. James P. McFarland, which lasted for six years until the latter moved to Nashville.  Serving as a port collector, a federal position, Downey was elected to the state assembly in 1856 and then secured election as lieutenant governor as noted above.

Downey, despite his Democratic leanings and only 32 years old, took office as governor in early 1860 at a time when the nation was rapidly heading toward the Civil War, but he had other issues.  One was a bill involving the valuable shipping area of the San Francisco waterfront and which Downey vetoed, despite the legislature’s approval and the support of powerful capitalists in the City by the Bay.  While his action made him popular for a period, another difficult decision changed everything.

Downey F&M ad Herald_Oct_22__1873_
Los Angeles Herald, 2 October 1873.

The presidential election of 1860 included the continuing divide among Democrats, with John Breckinridge the pro-slavery candidate and Stephen A. Douglas being the choice of the so-called “free soilers.”  Downey, who’d been in the pro-slavery camp in the 1859 contest, switched sides and supported Douglas, who then lost the campaign to Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Once the war erupted, shortly after Lincoln took office, Downey pledged to support the Union, though with little discernible enthusiasm.  His mild stance was criticized by Republicans, while he was essentially persona non-grata with many Democrats, particularly the pro-slavery faction.

For the 1861 elections, he failed to secure nomination by his party and there were two candidates, John R. McConnell, a pro-slavery Democrat, and free soiler John Conness.  Leland Stanford, who barely received votes in 1859, took up the standard of the Republican Party and benefited from the Democratic divide.  Though he won only 46% of the vote, McConnell and Conness split the rest of the electorate and handed Stanford the governorship.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for Downey at the end of his term as governor, the Democrats, whose fortunes were falling fast during the war, nominated him as their candidate, perhaps conceding that the party had no realistic chance to win, for the governor’s chair for the 1863 campaign.

Downey obit Herald_Mar_2__1894_
A portion of Downey’s obituary in the Herald, 2 March 1894.

His opponent was Low, a former member of the House of Representatives, and the contest was a blow out, with Low taking nearly 60% of the vote to Downey’s poor showing of about 41%.  There was one other recorded vote, incidentally, for Joshua Norton, a San Francisco eccentric who, in 1859, declared himself Emperor of the United States as Norton I.

Downey decided to withdraw from overt political activity following his decisive loss to Low and turned increasingly to business and real estate in Los Angeles, as well as being a founder of the University of Southern California in 1880.  This included the founding of the town of Downey and early Los Angeles banks, Hayward and Company and Farmers and Merchants (the latter a competitor of Temple and Workman.)

Downey’s role in assisting Temple and Workman during an economic panic in September 1875 led to his dismissal as president, though he remained a director in Farmers and Merchants.  In 1883, Downey and his wife, Maria Guirado, who was from a prominent Californio family in the modern-day Whittier area, were on a train at Tehachapi Pass when it had brake failure and crashed.  Maria Guirado Downey died and the ex-governor was badly injured and suffered from what today we’d call PTSD.

Downey portrait Herald_Mar_2__1894_
A portrait of the ex-governor (the photographer’s name was actually Lorenz, if that matters), Herald, 2 March 1894.

Downey remarried, but was increasingly reclusive and never fully recovered from the train disaster.  He died at his Los Angeles home in 1894 at age 66 and was interred at the Calvary Cemetery at the base of Elysian Park.  When that cemetery was soon closed, his remains were moved to a Catholic cemetery in Colma, a city of burial grounds south of San Francisco.

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