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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Governor Who Changed It All                      Joel Kang


Spencer C. Olin, Jr., a professor from Claremont Graduate School, wrote many historical novels such as California¡¦s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911-17, California Politics: 1846-1920, Racism in California: A Reader in the History of Oppression, and Why War? Ideology, Theory, and History. There is not much information about his life and past achievements, but he is a passionate writer who writes for his mother and father.



            The Progressive movement, which took place in the first two decades of the twentieth century, was manifested in California, and was a period of reform that opposed waste and corruption, and sought changes in the worker's rights and protection of the common citizen. Progressivism was a ¡§response to social and economic issues and to the radical streams of socialism and anarchism which opposed them.¡¨1 The California governor, Hiram Warren Johnson, played the major role in the movement by leading the Progressives into their start and peak¡Xall the way to their downfall. The historical novel, California¡¦s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the California Progressives 1911 ¡V 1917, by Spencer C. Olin, distinctly focuses on the Progressive era from the start gradually progresses from the local to the national level. In the earlier periods of the history of the United States of America, the lawyers, clergy and other professional men of high power traditionally held the positions of authority and power. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, industrial leaders start to violently seize the position of many workers and small businesses it in a way which becomes repugnant to the industrial leaders¡¦ moral ethic despite the many skeptics and dangers that came their way from the many critics and opposers. However, naturally, the Progressive Movement receives strong support from the growing middle class groups.

            Hiram Warren Johnson was the leading American progressive who played a major role in the Progressive Era. Johnson was born under a lawyer father in Sacramento, California. He went to the University of California at Berkeley and practiced law with his father until 1902. Then, Johnson left Sacramento and moved to San Francisco to set up his own law practice. Johnson worked long and hard and his participation with many of the labor trials made him ¡§the perfect candidate for the reform movement.¡¨2 He had supports from many different towns and cities, and he also had the strong support by the anti¡Vlabor groups all across the state of California because of his past cases in which he prosecuted many corrupt labor leaders. With the support from individuals all across the state, Hiram Johnson¡¦s future in politics looked brighter than any other leader in California history.

In the first part of the book, Spencer C. Olin provides the reader with the basics of the Progressive Era and of its start. It began with the legislative session of Hiram Johnson in 1911 and of its problems of railroad control, corruption in government, labor conditions, immigrant housing and education, and agricultural production and distribution. In addition, ¡§California had a special problem¡Xdomination by one large corporation¡¨3¡Xthe Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific established a complete monopoly of rails in California by the 1870¡¦s, and the corporation entered politics to preserve and enhance its monopoly and to extend its influence throughout California. The Southern Pacific Railroad reflected the dangers of the situation in which industry had become hazardously and dangerously become too powerful. However, the ¡§good finally prevails¡¨4 as Hiram Johnson and the California Progressives ¡§kicked¡¨ them out of politics by getting rid of their monopoly and by destroying their dominance in politics. Olin then takes the reader back to the story of Hiram Johnson¡¦s initial steps in his election for governor. First, he mentions the adoption of the initiative, referendum, and recall in Los Angeles as it soon became the first city in the United States to write the recall provision into its law. In 1906, new approaches to political reform were made as youthful leaders against the machine-controlled country of California met in a state-wide convention and created an organization called the Lincoln¡VRoosevelt League. However, the Lincoln¡VRoosevelt League was in desperate need to find its own candidate in the governor¡¦s chair or their league would remain potentially dangerous to the Southern Pacific. By 1910, Johnson emerged as ¡§the most popular choice.¡¨5 However, he refused to run, but despite his refusal, a special committee was created to persuade Johnson to run for governor¡Xreceiving the order ¡§to do almost anything¡K to compel him [to enter the race].¡¨6 After many attempts and after talking to Mrs. Johnson, Hiram Johnson decided to run and informs the committee that he would ¡§conduct a vigorous campaign.¡¨7 Johnson was finally elected and in his inaugural address in January 3, 1911, he presented his goals to develop an efficient public service that reflected the public good and not the good of special interests. The governor¡¦s specific legislative recommendations demonstrated his intention to ¡§return the government to the people¡¨ and to give them the honest public service untarnished by corruption and corporate influence.

After Hiram Johnson was elected governor of the state in 1932, the California progressives become anxious to find another Republican candidate who could replace President Taft. Taft was personally selected by Roosevelt to carry on the Progressive tradition that he had started, but he failed to achieve the pending shift in party control. While the Progressives were looking for a new candidate, early in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt changed his mind and decided to run again. He consulted Hiram Johnson, who opened the California campaign for Roosevelt. With Hiram Johnson as the leader in the ¡§Bull Moose¡¨ Campaign, the campaign of 1912 was ¡§an exciting affair.¡¨8 However, although Roosevelt received more votes than Taft in 1912, Woodrow Wilson won in a landslide¡Xthe fight between the Republicans concluded in the Democrat¡¦s victory. Having devoted most of their energies to the national campaign in 1912, Hiram Johnson and his advisers then decided to turn their complete attention to state matters. After the Bull Moose Campaign with Roosevelt, many progressives had enough of reform and before the legislation of 1913 convenes, it became clear that the unity characterizing the California Progressive Movement was starting to fall apart and lose its existence. For other state matters, the growing number of workers in California after 1900 made it difficult for labor unions to maintain the minimum wage level so the Industrial Welfare Commission was created. Throughout Johnson¡¦s governorship, he worked long and hard to examine labor conditions in the garment, laundry, and canning industries. He also created the Industrial Accident Board and the Act of 1913 to administer and enforce safety in industry, state insurance funds, and much more.

The third section of the novel consists of party discord as the national Progressive Party start to melt away. Many leaders and individuals such as Meyer Lissner were determined to break away from the California Republican Party. Johnson also wanted to organize a new party for his people. He strongly stated that: ¡§The longer we continue as Republicans the more difficult it will be to make the break and the greater prestige we add to the old name.¡¨9 The Progressive-dominated Republican State Central Committee disbanded on 1913 and on the following day, in San Francisco, formed the California Progressive Party. However, the struggle for Progressive leadership came near open rebellion when in the mid-summer of 1913, when Heney came out and planned to run against Johnson in 1914. Considering Johnson¡¦s sensitive and suspicious nature, he thinks that Heney was brought in to unseat him be the central figure of the California Progressive movement. Johnson ran again for a re-election and wins overwhelmingly, but Heney¡¦s defeat became a damaging blow to the Progressive prestige and nonetheless contributed to the decline. On June 1916, two presidential nominating conventions were held in Chicago. In the Progressive convention, the Progressive delegates reassembled to hear Chairman Raymond Robins read Roosevelt¡¦s answer to their nomination. He declined their offer and nomination as President and for a moment there was silence¡X¡§the cry of a broken heart.¡¨10 The Progressives were now a party without a leader. Feeling abandoned, many left the Progressive Party for good and carry thousands with them. The Republican party¡¦s political future now depended fully on Hiram Johnson so, with his full devotion, Hiram Johnson offered to run for senator on the Progressive and Republican tickets. A motion to endorse his candidacy was carried unanimously.

On August 29, the voters of California express their preference, and Hiram Johnson won both the Progressive and Republican primaries. The final section of the novel summarizes the concluding stages of Hiram Johnson¡¦s career as he became a senator and so remained one until his death in August 6, 1945. Furthermore, the final section of the novel speaks of the next presidency with Woodrow Wilson and his second term in office. Many Progressive leaders who had voted for Roosevelt voted for Wilson and, in addition to the support from Progressive defectors, the labor vote, and the peace votes, Wilson won because he strongly appealed to the small towns and the countryside. Thus, with the election of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, ¡§the Progressive Era soon comes to an end.¡¨11

Spencer C. Olin establishes a strong tone of reverence toward Hiram Johnson and a theme of his importance and significance during his years as the governor of California. By initially mentioning the problem with the South Pacific Railroad and of Johnson¡¦s work in eliminating their dominance, Olin¡¦s thesis establishes Hiram Johnson as ¡§the initial and central figure of progressivism,¡¨12 and establishes the facts about how he was the necessary catalyst the growing Progressive movement needed to reform California¡¦s politics and organize a stronger, more ordered state that give back to the people and benefit the many individuals who suffered through hard times rather than the ones who lived wealthy, comfortable lives.

In 1951, George E. Mowry published The California Progressives and broadened the ultimate understanding of the Progressive era. Not only that, he also gave a wealth of information about progressives in California for the many ignorant individuals and opened a forgotten door in history. He was among the first ¡§to draw the attention to Progressivism,¡¨13 and Olin¡¦s work is clearly the new summation of the works of Mowry with newly released documents of Hiram Johnson during the Progressive era. As for historiography, by initially establishing his firm interest and passion toward the Progressive era in the preface, Olin establishes a positive tone toward the Progressive Era, assuming that the reader has a fair interest toward the subject. With that, he thoroughly takes the reader back into history as the reader takes an adventure through time in order to learn and realize the importance of the Progressive era and its ultimate influence in United States¡¦ politics.

The review by Robert Wiebe, published by The American Historical Review, says that the book is ¡§a modest, carefully documented, and closely reasoned account of progressives in power.¡¨14 He, indeed, ¡§broadens considerably our understanding of the Progressive Era¡¨15 with the wealth of information about the progressives and their links with the nationwide movement for reform. In addition, with the past history of the Progressive era left by historian George Mowry and with newly discovered information called the ¡§Hiram papers,¡¨, Olin provides a fresh, more developed interpretation of the reform movement and the social perspective of its leaders in the era. However, Samuel Haber from the University of California, Berkeley, states that Olin ¡§puts [the] information together in an off-hand and unreflective way.¡¨16 Olin does have negative comments about Hiram Johnson, but after a while, showers the reader with the more positive aspects of him. He adds much to our knowledge and the information is very informal, but the one disappointing aspect is that he does not help us understand the laundry lists of information that is presented.

Olin, with his strong tone and characterization of Johnson as shrewd and dedicated, successfully ¡§[continued] George Mowry¡¦s study about the California Progressives¡¨17 and provided adequate facts and analysis of Johnson¡¦s role in the initial to the final stages of the era. Furthermore, with the newly discovered documents of Johnson, Olin successfully transfers obscure and unknown knowledge of the Progressive era as he records the littlest details of the era and of Hiram Johnson¡¦s strong and dominant role from its beginning to its peak. Additionally, Olin builds Johnson as a character to look up to¡Xa character that is soon revered, adored, and appreciated by readers. Despite the fact that the Progressive era met a fall and decline, Olin firmly establishes the importance and significance of the Progressive era to US politics and of its inevitable influence to the further enhancement of the US government as the citizens receive the freedom and democracy in which they are promised.

California was, indeed, reflected and influenced by the events occurring in the East United States. As a Progressive and Republican, California was greatly affected in the presidential campaign against Woodrow Wilson as the opposing parties strived to win the presidency. Hiram Johnson was the ¡§vigorous campaigner¡¨18 who led the pack, and while Progressivism was at its peak, had an incredible amount of influence throughout the country. Furthermore, with the many new reforms that occurred throughout the era, California was greatly affected and met many changes in policies regarding jobs and the rights of individual workers. For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that occurred in New York City in 1911 was one of the largest disasters in the east coast which called for many new laws and acts that protected the individual workers who devote more than ten hours a day in the closed, compacted factories. With many new reforms and with Johnson pursuing his promise to give the government back to the people, ¡§the policies of the United States in the Progressive era met many new and improved modifications¡¨19 that completely enhanced the lifestyles of many families.

California was clearly distinct from other parts of the country because Progressivism sprouted and reached its peak with Hiram Johnson and the leader. The Progressive party formed in California and ¡§grew to an era of reform and change¡¨20 with a terrific and renowned leader, Hiram Johnson. Hiram Johnson played the role as California¡¦s mightiest weapon as his charismatic leadership qualities brought about the rise of the Progressive era and was able to meet its peak. Furthermore, California, with its impressive population density, had a significant amount of influence as it led many of the reform movements to pass and establish more of a comfortable living environment for the hardworking, diligent citizens who deserved the full benefits of freedom and democracy.

The author, extremely fascinated with the study of Progressives in California, tries to fully continue and build up the foundation that was set by George E. Mowry who fantastically recorded the forgotten Progressive era. He sees California has the initial start for the Progressive era and as the important center for reform in the early 1900¡¦s as the Progressive movement brought about many major changes that not only benefitted the small, individual citizens, but also the country as a whole. He also sees the Progressive Movement as a ¡§social phenomenon¡¨21 as citizens took action and demanded new reforms which inevitably led to more of an advanced politics and to more of a secure government that stretches out to the weak and poor, practicing and striving for the full benefits of democracy and the full freedom of their rights. Olin will probably continue to document the stories of the past and will leave more traces of Progressivism behind for the many generations to come.

The Progressive Era in California was not only a ¡§period of important reform for the citizens,¡¨22 but was also a period of developing a foundation for the government in order to bring about a more united, organized, and ready society for the many hardships that are to come. Furthermore, without the influence of Hiram Johnson and without his continuous hard work for the six years he served as governor, California as well as the country would not have developed to their current states and the ¡§comforts of a free country¡¨ would not be as meaningful as it is today.


1. ¡§Progressive Era.¡¨ Eagleton Institute of Politics. 2004. 30 May 2008. < http://www.eagle


2. Olin, Spencer C. California¡¦s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives 1911-1917. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1968. p.25.

3. Olin, Spencer C 14.

4. Olin, Spencer C 18.

5. Olin, Spencer C 21.

6. Olin, Spencer C 21.

7. Olin, Spencer C 22.

8. Olin, Spencer C 66.

9. Olin, Spencer C 107.

10. Olin, Spencer C 110.

11. Olin, Spencer C 118.

12. Olin, Spencer C viii.

13. Olin, Spencer C 21.

14. Wiebe, Robert. ¡§[untitled].¡¨ The American Historical Review, Volume 74 (Oct., 1968): pp. 318-319.

15. Wiebe, Robert iv.

16. Haber, Samuel. ¡§[untitled].¡¨ The Journal of American History, Vol. 55 (Dec., 1968): pp. 663-664

17. Olin, Spencer C vi.

18. Olin, Spencer C 67.

19. Olin, Spencer C 192.

20. Olin, Spencer C 217.

21. Olin, Spencer C 183.

22. Olin, Spencer C 153.