Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Page 7



Candidate With Pro-Slavery Views Elected District Attorney in 1863



Sixth in a Series

VOLNEY E. HOWARD’s success at the polls in 1863 in the race for Los Angeles district attorney is a reflection of the deep-seated sympathy in California—particularly in the Southern portion—for the cause of the Confederacy.

California’s four electoral votes had gone to the fledgling anti-slavery Republican Party in the 1860 presidential race…but that was only because of fractured opposition to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Democrats in Northern states and those in the South had nominated competing candidates, and there was yet another candidate on the ballot, put up by the newborn (and soon-to-die) Constitutional Union Party, comprised of former members of the Whig and Know-Nothing parties. The vote in this state was roughly 39,000 for the Republican Lincoln and 89,000 divided among the three other contenders.

Howard, though born in Maine (on Oct. 22, 1809), had resided from 1832-53 in Dixie. The image he projected, and the precepts he espoused, were those of a Southerner.

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas, Howard had voted in 1850 against the granting of statehood to California based on a provision in its constitution banning slavery. In 1856, Howard, now a Californian, participated in the Democratic state convention, and is identified in “History of San Luis Obispo County” (1883) as one of the “extreme pro-slavery men” attending.

On April 10, 1862, the federal marshal for Southern California, Henry D. Barrows, wrote to Brig. Gen. George Wright, commander of the “Pacific Department” of the Union Army, headquartered in San Francisco, complaining of anti-Union sentiment in Southern California. The letter says such sentiment “permeates society here among both the high and the low,” and reports:

“A. J. King, under-sheriff of this county, who has been a bitter secessionist, who said to me that he owed no allegiance to the United States Government; that Jeff Davis’ was the only constitutional government we had, and that he remained here because he could do more harm to the enemies of that Government by staying here than going there; brought down on the Senator [a steam ship] Tuesday last a large lithograph gilt-framed portrait of Beauregard, the rebel general, which he flaunted before a large crowd at the hotel when he arrived. I induced Colonel Carleton to have him arrested as one of the many dangerous secessionists living in our midst, and to-day he was taken to Camp Drum. He was accompanied by General Volney E. Howard as counsel, and I have but little hope that he will be retained in custody.”

Other Democratic district attorneys in recent years had also sided with the South. Cameron Thom, who served in 1854-57, had come from Virginia, and returned to the South when the Civil War broke out to lead rebel troops as a major. Edward J.C. Kewen (in office from 1859-61) was from Mississippi, and favored succession of California from the union.

So it was that the Democratic County Central Committee, meeting on Aug. 1, 1863, in the Los Angeles District Court Courtroom, nominated Howard “by acclamation as District Attorney,” according to the Los Angeles Star.

The Star, the first newspaper established in Los Angeles (in 1851), was virtually a Democratic Party organ. It would list the party’s slate each week during the election season atop its editorial column. Other newspapers throughout the nation engaged in a similar practice, their stances being subservient to the party with which they were aligned.

The Los Angeles Tri-Weekly News, published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, also carried the ticket at the top of the editorial column, but the ticket which it spotlighted was that of the Union Party. Unconnected to the Constitutional Union Party just mentioned, it was allied with the National Union Party, an amalgam of Republicans and Northern Democrats. The local ticket included James H. Lander who had, the previous year, been defeated for reelection as Los Angeles city attorney by only two votes.

While losing to Howard at the Sept. 2, 1863 election, he attained a government post the following January. Lander became the county’s first court commissioner, a position newly authorized by the Legislature.

Terms of district attorneys were two years then. In 1865, Howard easily gained re-nomination by the Democratic Party.

Lander ran an ad in the Los Angeles News announcing he was “a candidate for District Attorney of Los Angeles County; subject to the nomination of the Union County Convention.” That nomination went, however, to Russell Sackett, a lawyer from Ohio who came to this area in 1849, at the outset of the gold rush.

In a diary entry for Feb. 10, 1850, Benjamin Hayes (who in 1852 was elected to the first of his two terms as state District Court judge for the area that included Los Angeles County) tells of a man he encountered here:

“The principal butcher is a lawyer by profession, and I liked him the better for the course he had taken in necessity. His name is Russell Sackett. He has a large family in Ohio.”

By 1853, Sackett had become a justice of the peace, a position which even in relatively recent years (the phrase “relatively recent” being defined as anything I can personally recall) did not require being a lawyer…nor did his job at the time of the 1865 election, that of U.S. postmaster for Los Angeles. While it’s unlikely that the Union Party would have put him up for the post of district attorney if he had not gaimed admittance to the bar here, the fact is that even if Sackett had remained a butcher, and had never practiced in Ohio or elsewhere, he would still have been legally eligible to run for the office he sought. An 1867 California Supreme Court opinion recites:

“There is nothing in the Constitution or laws of this State which requires that a license to practice law from this or any other Court must have been obtained before a person can become eligible to the office of District Attorney.”

(That opinion—at 32 Cal. 296—also reflects that in those days of the state’s infancy, “neither the Constitution nor the Judiciary Act provides that the Justices of this Court, or the Judges of the District and County Courts shall be licensed attorneys.”)

Whatever Sackett’s credentials were, or weren’t, he lost to Howard, the Democratic nomination then virtually assuring election.

Howard was to face two future election battles for the office of district attorney. More columns on Howard and other DAs are coming.


The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. traces its history to 1878. However, the group formed then was not the first organization of lawyers here. The Los Angeles News’s edition of Aug. 24, 1863, reports that the “Bar of Los Angeles county” met on Aug. 18 in County Judge William G. Dryden’s chambers; Dryden was elected chairman and Lander was chosen as secretary. A Committee on Resolutions was appointed comprised of Lander, Kewen, and one “Watson.” Lander and Kewen are mentioned above; I assume Watson to have been attorney James A. Watson.

The article says that two days later, minutes of the bar group’s meeting were “ordered spread on the minutes” of the District Court, presided over by Hayes.

I have no idea whether further meetings of the bar association were held.

The Los Angeles Star ceased publication after its issue of Oct. 1, 1864. Based on the newspaper’s vigorous attacks on the Lincoln Administration, it had been banned from the mails and its editor stood accused of sedition. The Los Angeles Tri-Weekly News came under new ownership on Nov. 17, 1865, and was now the “Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News.” It shifted from a pro-Union Party newspaper to one in the Democratic camp, its editorial policy being pro-secession and decidedly racist.


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