El Dorado County
HON. GIDEON J. CARPENTER
The subject of this biographical sketch is a native of Harford, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, where he was born May 4, 1823. His grandparents were pioneers of his native county and state, as his remoter ancestors were of the Old Bay state, where the first Carpenter’s landed in 1636 and the first of the Thayer’s, his maternal ancestors, in 1638. His grandparents were among the first settlers of his native town, where Asahel Carpenter and Amanda Malvina Thayer, were married May 25, 1822. They had five sons,--Gideon Judd, Frederick, Cyrus Clay, John and Emmett,--and one daughter, the youngest of the family and named for her mother, who died when a mere child. Of the family the subject of this sketch, Frederick and Emmett, are the sole survivors.
Of the Carpenter’s in recent history, Senator Matt Carpenter, of Wisconsin, and Cyrus Clay, brother of our Californian, have been most conspicuous. The last named, Colonel C. C. Carpenter, having settled in Iowa, was first on the staff of General Dodge and later on that of General Logan, on Sherman’s magnificent march through the Confederacy and around to Washington, whence he returned to Iowa, of which state he was afterward twice governor and twice, a representative in congress. Of the Thayer tribe, on the maternal side, William H. Seward was the chieftain, to say nothing of many prominent men in all the higher walks of life.
From this glance at his breed and brood, it will be seen that the subject of our sketch had in him the elements of his epoch and characteristics. His career was also influenced by early frontier experience. In 1835 his father moved in a two-horse wagon, over corduroy roads, to Warren County, Indiana. Here, while his father followed land surveying, he worked on a little backwoods farm, in sight of the Wabash River. At the end of six years, saddened by the loss of his mother and brother John, the rest of the family returned to Harford, where two years later his father and sister died. Again among friends and relatives who were the founders of Franklin Academy, he was, at intervals for eight years, a student at that institution. During his academic term he was a fellow student of H. H. McKune and Amos Adams, before whom, as district judges of California, he afterward practiced. His reading of law under a retired professor was suspended in 1849, when he again determined to try his fortunes in the west. This time Chicago was his objective point, but California was his unseen destination. With his three comrades and a good outfit, he spent the summer of 1850 on the plains with the overland pioneers of that year; and a few days before the admission of California into the Union he pitched his tent under the tall pines which then overshadowed Georgetown, minus pretty much all the rest of his outfit.
The end of a long and tiresome journey was the beginning of his life work in the paradise of miners, where every disappointment had in it the pleasures of hope and golden visions of fortunes yet to be made. The next five years, excepting only the summer of 1854, he devoted all his energies to placer and river mining. Beginning at Greenwood, his mining career ended at Big Bar, on the middle fork of the American River, where he organized and engineered the most daring and expensive fluming operation ever undertaken on that river. By a flume over two miles in length, fifteen feet wide and four feet deep, the river from Volcano to Big Bar was completely drained and made to run the wheels and pumps by which it was done. Eyewitnesses of this achievement, and of his discovery and operations on the Big Crevice at Big Bar, are still living in Placerville. When he left the mines for other occupations he owed nothing, and but for the festivities of a miner’s life in the ’50 they would have been largely indebted to him.
In 1854 the gayeties of mining were varied by a stumping campaign, in which, with no colleague and few followers, he confronted the fierce and vindictive conspiracy against David C. Broderick. It was a campaign of bitter antagonisms, two years in advance of the senatorial election, in view of which he had been nominated by the Anti-Gwin Democracy for the State Senate. Thus to lead the clansmen of Broderick, in a losing combat for a desired future reprisal, was a paradox of self-sacrifice not to be declined. The campaign was made for all that was in it, and with the result anticipated. Two years later the defeated leader of a forlorn hope was nominated by the united Democracy and elected to the State Senate by a signal majority. By the following legislature of 1856-7, the great northern leader, who was afterward murdered because he was opposed to slavery, was triumphantly elected to the United States Senate. In the Democratic caucus by which he was chosen his champion from the then Empire county of the state had the honor of being designated by himself to put him in nomination for the long term. For this purpose the correct order of nominations was reversed and the short term reserved to be finally conferred on William M. Gwin, by the advice and consent of his successful opponent, who had too much respect for the determined opposition of his El Dorado friend to ask of him the mistaken concession to a shrewd and unscrupulous foe,--a concession for which the only reward of D. C. Broderick was a foul and successful plot against his life.
Such was the fierce and implacable combat in which the subject of this biography won his spurs and developed his capacity for fighting. It seems to have forecast his subsequent career. But having no predilection for legislative positions, which were often at his command, after his senatorial term he returned to the scene of his mining ventures. In 1860 he canvassed and voted for Douglas, who had a plurality in the county. In 1862 he was elected, as a pronounced Union Democrat, to the office of county clerk. In 1864 he canvassed and voted for Lincoln and was an uncompromising supporter of his administration until the last drum beat of the Civil War, when he again espoused the cause of Jeffersonian Democracy, against a Republican majority of the county of fifteen hundred, flushed with the victories which he had helped to win. Only two years later, in 1867, he was nominated by the Democracy for district attorney and was elected by a handsome majority. Twice re-elected by increased majorities, in the fall of 1874, three months before the expiration of his third term, he resigned the office to accept the more difficult service of standing between his county and its bondholders in the next assembly, to which he was nominated by his party and elected without a canvass. Being one of a large Democratic majority in that house, in a contest with Judge Archer, of San Jose, he was chosen for Speaker. Between him and all the members of the assembly, including Joseph McKenna, then the leader of the Republican minority, now a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the courtesies of personal and official intercourse ripened into many life-long friendships. During the entire session no scene of disorder lasted a minute and not a single successful appeal was taken from his parliamentary rulings; and, judging from the press comments of the times, without distinction of party, he not only accomplished the object of his election but more than justified his choice as Speaker.
At the close of the session with his legislative record he returned to Placerville, where on the following 4th of July he delivered the Centennial oration. The same year, while engaged in the practice of his profession, against his earnest protest, he was impressed into a nomination for congress against Hon. Frank Page and a standing Republican majority of more than five thousand in his district. After a formal canvass and a foregone defeat, he once more returned to his home and profession in Placerville. Two years later, in 1878, without solicitation or reference, he was appointed by his friend, Governor Irwin, to the responsible office of Supreme Court Reporter, and in the ensuing two years issued Volumes 52 and 53 in the series of California Reports. But when the Kearney constitution was adopted the report’s salary was reduced from six to two thousand dollars and he had no further use of the office. He returned to the practice of law in his own city and county, both of which had voted against the Sand Lot craze.
But he was again drawn from his retirement when, in 1879, another disastrous sand-storm broke over his party and state. For him there was the new constitution, with its portentous public and private consequences, the irony of fate. Going back to its origin in the assembly of which he was the Speaker, there is a passage of unwritten history, hitherto known to but few even of his personal friends. As explained by himself, the legislature at the last previous session had passed and submitted to the people of the state an act providing for a convention to revise the constitution. From the returns of the general election, to which it was referred, it was found to have received only a majority of votes on that measure and not of all the votes cast in that election, as in his opinion required. His judgment was that of the assembly, a majority of which held, against the dissenting opinion of John R. McConnell, a very able but eccentric lawyer, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that no call for a convention had been authorized. To insure this result the Speaker had exercised his privilege as an assemblyman. Later on in the session he was taken into the confidence of his friend McConnell, who complained that after putting him in a responsible position he had gone aside from his office and out of his way to beat a known hobby of a devoted friend. He was also informed by the irrepressible advocate of a constitutional convention, that he was about to introduce his hobby again, and to have it beaten by the Speaker would break his heart. Thus assailed on his non-combative side, reserving to himself the right to vote against a measure that seemed to have but few supporters, he consented to keep out of its discussion. For this inconsiderate promise and the unexpected result, he has never forgiven himself; and for its ultimate consequences, his repentant friend went down with sorrow to his grave.
To man the piratical commissions decried by its framers and created by the marvelous new constitution, was the first order of business. Among them the railroad commission was freighted with the most inviting rewards for anti-railroad reformers, who should pose as impartial judges. It was the most tempting prize in the political raffle of 1879,--memorable for the fusion of Kearney sand-lotters with the new constitution party. The fusion candidates for the coveted office of Railroad Commissioner had voted for its creation and for their own eligibility as first-termers, while members of the convention. Against such a union of forces and such titles to public preference and amazement, the subject of this narrative was made once more an emergency candidate of the undefiled Democracy of his district, which, to the surprise of friend and foe, gave him nearly fifteen thousand votes.
In proportion to the population polled, it was the largest Democratic vote received by any candidate for any office, state or district, in that crucial and memorable campaign. For his party it was an auspicious result and converted uncompromising defeat into ultimate success; and four years later the man who had from the first confronted and denounced the new constitution as a shabby fraud on all concerned was renominated for Railroad Commissioner by the party which he had thrice served as a forlorn hope in its direst need, and was elected by the normal Democratic majority! As was to have been expected, he was followed through the canvass and into his office by venal and vindictive hatred, inspired by past antagonisms and resulting disappointments. But, trammeled by no electioneering pledges or other prejudgment, as president of the Railroad Commission, which up to that time had been the tin horn and sport of officious and intermeddling agitators, he incurred their renewed enmity by dispensing with their patriotic services. Thus discarding all sinister and blackmailing influences of newspapers and demagogues, he made the powers, duties, facts, figures and constitutional finalities of his office the basis and burden of its administration. In doing so he substituted settled rules of evidence and of judicial fairness for the irresponsible clamor of shysters, and panders, whether on or off the commission, to public prejudice against railroad or other legitimate interests, subject to its jurisdiction and supervision.
Thus alone were the rulings, orders and decision of a quasi-judicial tribunal, made in fact what they were in contemplation and presumption of law,--“just and reasonable.” And in this connection it may also be said that the official record of the commission during his term of office is chiefly his in conception and execution; and he has lived to see much, if not all of it, endorsed by his successors in office; and so far as controverted in analogous cases, uniformly sanctioned by judicial decisions.
That a man whose life has been so full of exceptional situations and exacting episodes has after all a sunny soul and social side, is his greatest merit. On him, therefore, the best things remain to be said. In 1857, while he was in the State Senate, he was married to Miss Mary A. Whitney, then recently from her paternal home in Wheelock, Vermont. With him she has shared and survived the vicissitudes of his busy career. Of their two sons, Prentiss is married and has a life sketch in this book; and Galusha resides with his parents, as does their daughter, Mollie, who is a gifted and cultivated musician.
At intervals for many years, subject to overruling circumstances, the paternal head of the family made the storm of shelter a shelter and was much away from home. But in recent years, as editor and proprietor of “The Mountain Democrat,” the oldest and best equipped journal in El Dorado County and one of the three oldest in the state, he has devoted himself to his editorial and private affairs. Besides his paper he has a handsome residence in Placerville and a small suburban ranch. As a man and politician, friend and foe, his fearless courage of settled convictions and self-reliant staying qualities, inspired by clear conceptions of right and wrong, have been the dominant and decisive characteristics of his long and eventful life.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.