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  • Tales of Two Cities: Common Good, Common Ground, and the Practice of History
  • Lorraine McConaghy (bio)
Philip J. Ethington. The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xvi + 464 pp. Figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, and index. $54.95.
Alexander von Hoffman. Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xxiv + 311 pp. Figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, appendixes, and index. $39.95.

In The Public City, Philip J. Ethington has advanced a deceptively simple thesis: that in 1850 San Francisco’s public experience was characterized by a political construction of social life, but that by 1900 this fundamental understanding of society had been displaced by a social construction of political life. By means of this enormously powerful and delicately balanced equation, Ethington here challenges a working principle shared by generations of historians and sociologists: that political behavior is socially determined. The site for his research and analysis is San Francisco’s public sphere, a carefully delineated place of discourse which included the newspaper, the marketplace, and the “site of deliberation” in a restricted representative democracy.

Mid-century San Francisco was a town born in violence, marked by exploitation, inhabited by many men, few women, and fewer families. Ethington suggests that because the city lacked a substantial private sphere, its public sphere may have taken on an exaggerated significance. He characterizes the city’s political expression as romantic republicanism, steeped in the classical drama of public conflict between heroes and villains contesting vice and virtue, and employing theatrical rhetoric to marshall the efforts of all good men in triumphant pursuit of an “indivisible public good” (p. 129). Ethington decodes the organized violence of duels and executions as allegories of manliness and vengeance on the political stage. He offers fresh examinations of the much-discussed Vigilance Committees, noting the rationalization of shocking violence through Ciceronian republican precedent, and [End Page 246] also provides a striking reinterpretation of the Committees’ membership, taking into account age distribution as well as that of class, ethnicity, and occupation.

To San Francisco’s politicians of the 1860s, “social relations were the result of political institutions and policies,” but the Civil War would mark a break between this republican liberal world and a new order (p. 175). The old world had conceived of a political society in which divergent interests should be subsumed by a political process to advance a common good, commonly recognized; the new world would come to conceive of a social polity, emphasizing the conflicts among divergent interests. The public sphere increasingly became the venue for rivalry among distinctly different social groups primed by the calculated marketing strategies of San Francisco’s newspapermen and aspiring politicians, and further defined by those groups’ political mobilization.

Ethington provides a fine analysis of William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, meeting communities of race, class, and ethnicity within the polity with the frank intent of developing them as newspaper markets. Hearst bluntly stated that there was “no universal public interest” (quoted p. 319) and the hot newspapers of the 1880s and the 1890s spoke to the interests of Irish, German, or labor union readers. The old Alta California had been the journal of the republican order, a nonpartisan voice for an undivided public interest on a common ground, and the lively new journalism soon put it out of business.

Likewise, Ethington argues that San Francisco politicians identified, met, and/or created similar new markets among voters by their use of a language of class and ethnicity. The Workingmen’s Party had begun its campaigns with traditional republican rhetoric, identifying “the evil characters of rulers” as the root causes of hard times or low wages (p. 279). However, with the emergence of progressivism in the city, San Franciscans saw a “reorganization of the public sphere that enabled the pursuit of interests by groups and their leaders” (p. 288). Progressive centralization of authority acknowledged and promised to coordinate the competing interests of antagonistic social groups as pluralist liberalism replaced the old republican liberalism.

Examining the reciprocity in the public sphere between newspapers and politicians, Ethington offers a...

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