J. Neeley Johnson

4th Governor, American (Know Nothing)

Inaugural Address

Delivered: January 9, 1856

About to assume the duties which have been assigned me by the free suffrages of the people of this State, under the solemnity of the oath I have just subscribed in the presence of this Convention of delegated representatives and vast concourse of citizens, here assembled, I find much to impress me with a sense of the onerous responsibilities attached to the gubernatorial office—the most exalted position a State can bestow—whilst at the same time a preference thus manifested, cannot fail to inspire me with the most profound sentiments of gratitude toward those from whom I have received this distinguished mark of confidence.

Universal custom demands of the incoming Executive an indication of the general course of policy by which he will be guided in the administration of public affairs. A compliance with this well-recognised usage, is mainly my present design, deferring to another and early occasion, the specific recommendations which I may deem essential for legislative consideration.

With due deference to such counsels as have been potent in incorporating into our legislationa practical exposition of certain distinctive features of the State Constitution — so opposite to the views entertained by myself — I cannot refrain, even at this early day, from enumerating some of the more prominent provisions of that instrument, and venturing to suggest my individual opinion of the proper construction to be given them, whereby the future action of the Executive may be facilitated, and official intercourse with the Legislative department of the Government most happily promoted.

In the first place, the subject of State indebtedness is one affecting the most vital interests of our population, involving, as it does, the reputation of the State, both at home and abroad; and probably at the present time enlists more general interest and inquiry, than all other matters connected with the administration of the public business. That our depreciated credit may be restored, and our obligations honorably redeemed, finds in all a universal response. To the certain and speedy accomplishment of this desire, radical reforms must be resorted to, and a more willing and close obedience observed towards our constitutional obligations.

In the study and investigation which I have given the State Constitution, I find nought that can reconcile, with a proper sense of duty, a disregard to any of its provisions, under the specious pretext that necessity requires this or that feature should be treated as a "dead letter," but in all its parts it manifestly displays a complete adaptation to the purposes for which it was enacted—in no respect more happily illustrated than in those checks and restrictions which secure the people against prodigal and wasteful expenditure of the public money by legislative sanction. Most prominent of that class referred to is the eighth article of that instrument, and that I may the more readily be understood, I quote the article entire:

"Article VIII. State Debts — The Legislature shall not, in any manner, create any debt or debts, liability or liabilities, which shall singly or in the aggregate, with any previous debts or liabilities, exceed the sum of three hundred thousand dollars, except in case of war, to repel invasion or suppress insurrection, unless the same shall be authorized by some law for some single object or work, to be distinctly specified therein; which law shall provide ways and means, exclusive of loans, for the payment of the interest of such debt or liability as it falls due, and also to discharge the principal of such debt or liability within twenty years from the time of the contracting thereof, and shall be irrepealable, until the principal and interest thereon shall be paid and discharged. But no such law shall take effect until at a general election, it shall have been submitted to the people and have received a majority of all the votes cast for and against it at such election; and all money raised by authorizing of such law shall be applied only to the specified object therein stated or to the payment of the debt thereby created; and such law shall be published in at least one newspaper in each Judicial District (if any be published therein), throughout the State, for three months next preceding the election at which it is submitted to the people."

Has this article been faithfully observed, these requirements pursued in the millions of money appropriated, now aggregating our public debt, and hereafter to be discharged by means of onerous exactions from the people? Truly not. No inconsiderable amount of appropriations, since the State indebtedness reached the sum mentioned, has been for "specific purposes," and not embraced within the exceptions named. In these, each successive Legislature has borne its part, and generally, it is believed, without duly considering the effect of such restrictions.

With the established fact that our existing indebtedness far transcends the sum of three hundred thousand dollars, a literal construction of the article might seem to embrace, among the interdicted appropriations, such even as are absolutely necessary to the support of the State government. In this view, however, I cannot concur. All governments must inherently possess, to a practicable extent, the power of providing means for their own maintenance, so far even as to pledge their credit and revenue; else every movement might be at once arrested, and each department fail utterly to perform the functions for which it was ordained. The exclusion of such authority in our own State Government, without the observance of the formula prescribed in the article just quoted, would wholly destroy its utility, and render its action entirely abortive; thus making it what it was never designed to be by the framers of the Constitution — a Government in name, indeed, but destitute of the power to impart vitality to any of its movements. Hence, in my view, no Constitutional objection can arise, in making all needful appropriations for supporting the various departments of the State Government. But here the authority ceases; and each and every appropriation for purposes not absolutely and necessarily embraced within the class of expenditures required to support the State Government, or such as fall within the exception — "in case of war, to repel invasion, or suppress insurrection," — the Constitution utterly forbids and prohibits, unless previously submitted to the people for their sanction and ratification in the prescribed manner.

In this same connection, I would call attention to Sec. 23, Art. IV., of the Constitution: "No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law." How far this requirement has been complied with, it is only necessary to refer to past action, and it will be seen that a considerable amount of state indebtedness has been created by at least a most latitudinous construction of what constitutes and "appropriation made by law," and often by an utter disregard of his positive mandate of the Constitution.

Another restrictive feature of this instrument is found in the article relating to Corporations, and which, I fear, has not been so closely observed as its importance demands. Sec. 31 of Art. IV., provides, that "Corporations may be formed under general laws, but shall not be created by special act, except for municipal purposes." And the sense in which the word "Corporations" is there employed, is defined in Sec. 33 of the same article, as follows: "The term corporations, as used in this article, shall be construed to include all associations and joint stock companies, having any of the powers or privileges of corporations not possessed by individuals or partnerships." The experience of all legislation has demonstrated the pernicious consequences attendant on conferring authority upon the legislative department to grant special privileges to corporate companies, in which the public have but little or no interest. To mention no greater objection, the frequency of such applications oftentimes absorbs much valuable time, and greatly retards the course of general business. The framers of our Constitution have, therefore, "except for municipal purposes," wisely forbidden the Legislature to pass other than general laws on this subject. Entertaining the opinion that those provisions mean what, in words readily understood, they declare, if, upon examination, it shall be found that the general laws hitherto enacted require amendment so as to promote their greater usefulness, my sanction will be most cheerfully given; but, "except for municipal purposes," it will be withheld from any special act of incorporation.

The only remaining subject, especially connected with this branch of my remarks, to which I will now allude, is the veto power conferred on the Executive. In this respect the Constitution of California is not singular, but finds a precedent in that of the Federal Union, and, with various modifications, in those of all the States composing that Union. At this remote period, it is unnecessary to investigate the motives which, in a system like our own, prompted the adoption of a feature so positively in derogation of the popular will as manifested through their chosen representatives but we may rationally infer that the prerogative thus bestowed was never designed to be rashly or inconsiderately exercised, nor its uses prostituted to the accomplishment of selfish ends, but rather to preserve intact the Constitution, to guard from intrusion and violation its sacred mandates, and to restrain the improvident exercise of legislative power. If, unhappily, the necessity shall arise during my official term—which I confidently hope and believe will not—in my opinion calling for the interposition of this prerogative, it will only be exercised in consonance with the views I have here expressed.

An observance of the foregoing maxims may contribute much to relieve the embarrassments under which our beloved State has so long labored, but they constitute only in part these reformatory measures the people ask, yea, demand, at the hands of the administration. The most rigid economy in all its departments, scrupulous fidelity in the discharge of public trusts, and an earnest zeal in promoting the present and future well-being of the State, are confidently expected from those in power. To this end, the abolition of all sinecures and needless offices — especially refusing to create more of like kind —a just and discriminating reduction of the fees and emoluments of office, and withal (if such detestable heresy has ever in our State found its votaries, that there can honestly exist such things as constructive perquisites in salaried offices,) teaching the official incumbent of every degree, that he must look solely to the legitimate salary or fees, as defined by law, for compensation; the adoption of such needful amendments to our code, criminal and civil, as will tend to promote the impartial and speedy administration of justice, simplify legal proceedings, and give force and efficacy to laws framed for beneficent purposes, but which have proven so defective as to render them absolutely nugatory; that the blessings of a Republican Government may be successfully enjoyed, and the noblest boon of the American citizen not ruthlessly overridden by perjury and fraud, the enactment of election laws and regulations, such as will tend to secure the legal voter, whether native or naturalized, the right of voting in security and safety; the exercise of such constitutional legislation as will be calculated to adjust, on equitable terms, controversies in relation to lands, in adverse possession to those claiming under Mexican grants, that stability and certainty of title may tend to augment population and improvement, and enhance the public revenue; the adoption of biennial sessions of the Legislature, and by assiduity and laborious industry in the work of legislation, bring the sessions within the shortest possible limit; these, gentlemen of the Legislature, constitute some of the undertakings now before us; and, entertaining as I do, the most exalted confidence in the purity of your motives, wisdom of your counsels, and regard for the public weal, I doubt not we will be found alike coworkers in the noble task of reform now to be begun, and prosecuted with a zeal and ardor that knows no abatement, that the sincerity of our declarations may be vindicated, and public expectation realized.

But let us not forget that we have other duties and obligations than those entailed in the management of our domestic affairs. As one of the American Confederacy, whilst California would evince a due spirit of resistance toward any encroachment on her well-recognised rights as a sovereign State, she yields to none in the alacrity displayed in the performance of her duties toward the General Government, the history of her people constitutes the noblest vindication of their fealty to the Union, and their desire for its perpetuation. When, years ago, she was struggling with a self-constituted government, during months of anxious entreaty, refused recognition as a State; paying tribute in countless thousands to the Federal Treasury; her people sorely perplexed with the apparent indifference with which their appeals were received—no murmur of discontent was heard, or threat of secession indulged in; and when at length came the gladsome news of admission to the rights of a State, the universal joy of the people demonstrated their loyal attachment and devotion to the Union. Such is now the universal sentiment which the lapse of time has but strengthened; and the fond hope may be confidently cherished, that if ever disorganizers shall plot the destruction of this noblest fabric of human government, the people will be found arrayed in its defense and preservation.

In conclusion, though fully sensible of the fact, that the present condition of the State invokes the aid of administrative capacity, having its foundation in eminent ability and the most comprehensive experience, and conscious that those attributes of character are denied me, yet in the discharge of the difficult duties which I am called upon to perform, with a hopeful dependence on the watchful and protecting care of that Ruler who is supreme over all, I hesitate not to give the assurance that so far as I have at this time avowed my course of policy, its observance shall be strictly regarded, and that in all matters of' public duty, an impartial, honest, and conscientious course shall illustrate my own action; and if the fond wishes for the public good in which I have indulged be not realized, it will not result from the want of determined and constant effort on the part of your Executive.