The vigilantes address their opponents

While San Francisco’s Committee of Vigilance had not yet discovered any indication of a lack of confidence from its constituents and had no reason to doubt that the greater part of the community endorsed their action and wanted them to continue the work of weeding out irreclaimable characters from the city, they had seen, with deep regret, that some state authorities had felt it their duty to organize a force to resist them. The committee realized that not only those who sought office with a view to public plunder but also those gentlemen who had accepted offices to which they were honestly elected and then swore to uphold the laws of the state of California found it difficult to reconcile their duties with the acts of the committee. These good men should reflect that more than three quarters of the people of the state sympathized with and endorsed the efforts of the committee and as all law emanated from the people when those laws were not properly executed that power then returned to the people whenever they might choose to exercise it.

Map of San Francisco 1855

Map of San Francisco 1855

Had the people elected to make their movement a complete revolution, recalling all power they had delegated and reissuing it to new agents under new forms, instead of what was happening now, those elected gentlemen would not have hesitated to acknowledge this self evident truth. But, because the people had not seen fit to resume all the powers they had confided to state and executive officers, it certainly did not follow that they could not withdraw from corrupt and unfaithful servants the authority those same men had used to thwart the ends of justice. The officers whose mistaken sense of duty had led them to array themselves against the determined action of the people, whose servants they had become, might themselves be respected though their error regretted. But no one could envy the future reflections of that man who, whether in the heat of malignant passion or with the vain hope of preserving by violence a position obtained through fraud and bribery, sought, under the color of law, to enlist the outcasts of society as a hireling soldiery in the service of the state or who urged criminals, by hopes of plunder, to continue at the cost of civil war the reign of ballot box stuffers and men who tamper with the jury box.



  1. Great post, John! Succinct and to the point.

    I enjoy reading your posts on the San Francisco Vigilantes because I see similarities to Montana’s, along with one major difference. The Montana Vigilantes of 1862-1865 put the law in place rather than having to fight against its official corrupters. They operated in a vacuum of law. Nonetheless, both the San Francisco Vigilantes and the Montanans remain controversial to today.

    • Thanks Carol. I do think people have been taught that vigilantes are bad, and later versions did seem to go too far, but in San Francisco at least they cleaned up the political corruption in just three months. They only hanged four men, all murderers with eyewitnesses to their crimes, but they exiled many more and shipped them out of California. They heavily influenced the 1856 elections but their stated goal was to elect honest candidates. It seems that today we could use a lot more honesty in our elections too. I think that the vigilantes in San Francisco, and those in Montana, have been tarnished by the actions of others who came later and perhaps by those in power today who fear the righteous wrath of the people rising again. History, it seems, is not always what they tell us.

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