Who was Haight?

Who was Haight?


Henry Huntly Haight was born in Rochester, New York, on May 20, 1825. He was of English and Scottish roots, with his paternal ancestors settling in 1628 in what became Massachusetts. He established the third generation of lawyers in his family. 

Growing up, Haight was fond of poetry. He attended the Rochester Collegiate Institute before entering Yale in 1840 at 15. He graduated in 1844 and moved to St. Louis to continue legal studies under his father, Fletcher Matthews Haight. After Henry passed the bar, they formed a partnership. The younger Haight also became politically active, editing a Free Soil newspaper. “Free Soilers” opposed the western expansion of slavery as they believed the practice undermined and reduced the wages of free white laborers. Haight headed to California in 1849 when gold was discovered. 

In his book, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890, D. Michael Bottoms writes: In 1850, Haight arrived in California and “determined to mine the miners rather than the mines.” Haight restarted his law practice in San Francisco, first with General James A. McDougall and later with his father. The former went on to be elected California Attorney General, a member of Congress and U.S. Senator by the time of Haight’s candidacy for Governor. President Abraham Lincoln later appointed the elder Haight as a federal district court judge. Haight’s legal career, with prominent clientele like James Lick, fraternal associations as a Mason, his role as a Presbyterian minister and early political connections aided in his rise to prominence. 

By 1859, Haight became chairman of the state Republican Party and led Lincoln’s campaign in California, although in 1861, he told a friend he regretted supporting Lincoln.

Despite an attempt at secession, California remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Soon after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Haight came out as a Democrat in 1863. Haight never disclosed his reasons, but historians and observers have suggested he either changed his position on slavery, felt he hadn’t received recognition for his services, or had only been drawn to the new Republican Party due to its Free Soil positions and not its opposition to slavery. Regardless of the motivations, he campaigned against Lincoln in 1864 on behalf of former Union General George McClellan, and reportedly disrespected the President on the campaign trail.

After the Civil War, plans for Reconstruction developed. Despite being focused on the South, Reconstruction politics greatly influenced California. In 1867, white Californians’ fears over Reconstruction influenced the Democratic Party’s platform and their selection of candidate for Governor.

At the state convention, California Democrats adopted an anti-Reconstruction platform. Upset over the politics of the Radical Congress, Democrats resolved that “indiscriminate suffeage,” or empowering non-white males to vote “would end in the degradation of the white race and the speedy destruction of government.” 

Upon his nomination, Haight used his oratorical flair to espouse and expand the party’s rhetoric on a speaking tour. At his July 9 speech at San Francisco’s Union Hall, Haight denounced Reconstruction and its potential impact in California. He claimed Congress’ policies put white Americans “under the heel of negroes” and warned indiscriminate suffrage would allow Chinese to vote in California. Haight deemed Chinese people unworthy of voting as they would be manipulated by their railroad employers. As “pagans,” “serfs” and members of a “servile, effeminate and inferior race,” their suffrage rights would “pollute and desecrate” the democratic “heritage” of white Americans. Haight called for increased immigration from Europe to prevent Asian migration. “But if we are powerless to prevent the swarming of millions of Asia from pouring in upon us, we can at least keep in our hands the government of the country.”

Haight’s racial message went largely unchallenged by Republicans and their candidate George C. Gorham, and was amplified by the press. Black Californians responded by opposing the comparison with Chinese, portraying themselves as “native American, loyal” and Christian. They also challenged Haight’s white ideal by redefining European immigrants, like the Irish, as less worthy than Black Californians, who had higher literacy rates and familiarity with American institutions.

In September 1867, white Californians elected Haight in a landslide. Haight, with more than 9,000 votes, carried the entire Democratic ticket into office, ending control by the Union-Republican parties for the rest of the century.


Editor’s note: In light of the recent call to rename Haight Elementary School, local writer Rasheed Shabazz offered to pen a biography of former Alameda resident Henry Huntly Haight in two parts. Part 1 addresses Haight’s early life and political influences, and factors leading to his nomination and election in 1867 as a Democratic candidate for California Governor.\

Rasheed Shabazz is a writer. He created a historical website about Henry H. Haight at http://renamehaight.wordpress.com.