L.A.’s First Presidential Election

Neither Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce nor Whig candidate Winfield Scott took much notice of Los Angeles during the 1852 presidential campaign – and why would they? The City of Angels was then a dusty adobe village of some 2,000 souls, a frontier outpost within a state worth only four electoral votes and accessible only by a dangerous overland journey or a long steamship ride around South America. (Even during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, in which Pierce and Scott both served as general officers, the two men probably never thought much about Los Angeles; both participated in the invasion of Mexico proper, while Los Angeles represented a minor strategic prize in a distant, secondary theater.)

And yet, despite its electoral insignificance, Los Angeles voted.

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, voters made their way to one of ten polling places scattered across a then-expansive Los Angeles County, which in 1852 encompassed much of present-day Orange and San Bernardino counties. In the Santa Ana precinct, they assembled at Bernardo Yorba’s adobe house near the Santa Ana River. In the Roubideaux (sic) precinct near present-day Riverside, it was the home of Louis Rubidoux. And in the San Gabriel precinct, the old Spanish mission acted as polling place.

In Los Angeles itself, a crowd gathered that morning outside the adobe county courthouse at Spring Street and Franklin Alley. The contest between Pierce and Scott, fought over slavery and other sectional issues, might not have stirred much passion among Angelenos, but the races for state and local office certainly had. Just to reach the polling window, voters had to push through the throng of candidates and other campaigners huddled around the courthouse. Inside, behind the ballot box, the election officials – inspector Alexander Bell and judges John G. Downey and Ignacio del Valle – tried to manage the chaos.

Because California did not use voter rolls until 1866, these officials made a spot determination about each voter’s eligibility. Despite spirited arguments from the crowd about each voter’s citizenship and residency status, most white men who presented themselves before the officials were allowed to vote, as were most Mexican-Americans, made U.S. citizens by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Indians were not permitted, however, nor were African-Americans (though Afro-Mexicans like Pío Pico were). Women regardless of ethnicity could not vote, either; they would not win suffrage in California until 1911.

1852 Whig and Democratic campaign posters
1852 campaign posters for the Whig (left) and Democratic (right) tickets. Courtesy of the Library of Congress,

The ballots themselves were usually pre-printed tickets supplied by local Democratic or Whig partisans. To vote a straight party ticket, a voter simply placed the slip of paper in the ballot box. To cross party lines in a race, the voter crossed out the pre-supplied name and wrote in his preferred candidate.

The presidential candidates, Pierce and Scott, did not themselves appear on the ballots; instead, the electoral college delegates pledged to them did. Thus, to vote for Scott, a voter would actually cast four votes, one for each of the Whig electors: John C. Fall, D. H. Haskell, T. D. Johns, and James E. Hale. To vote for Pierce, he would vote for the four Democratic electors: Winfield S. Sherwood, Joseph W. Gregory, Thomas J. Henley, and Andrés Pico.

Of these eight electors, Pico was the only to hail from Southern California. But Pico, brother of Pío, was more than an Angeleno. He was a Californio who, as commander of Mexican forces in California, battled American troops during the invasion of 1846-47 and now, as a U.S. citizen and a pragmatist, had reinvented himself as a Democratic politician. In 1852, Mexican-Americans still constituted a majority of Southern California’s voting population. Pico was a natural choice to represent them in the electoral college.

A mere five years after he surrendered to Lt. Col. John C. Fremont at Cahuenga, Gen. Pico was now pledging his electoral college vote to a brigadier general on the opposing side.

Andres Pico, one of California's four delegates to the electoral college
Andrés Pico, a Mexican general in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, was one of California's four presidential electors in 1852. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

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“Vote Early and Vote Often”

Despite the best efforts of election officials, voter fraud plagued Southern California’s first elections under American rule. Harris Newmark recounts some of the rumored practices in his memoir “Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913”:  

Other election fraud was even more pernicious. Cooping – the practice of kidnapping voters, intoxicating them, and forcing them to vote for a particular party, often several times in the same day – was common to many U.S. cities. (It may have killed Edgar Allan Poe in 1849.) When Anglo newcomers imported it into Southern California, cooping fit within an emerging pattern of racial violence against the region’s poorer Spanish-speaking residents. Newmark writes:

"Soliciting a Vote" – an 1852 political cartoon
This 1852 political cartoon from New York hints at the chaos that often prevailed at the polling place. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We’ll never know exactly how such practices distorted the vote, but the final tally, published Nov. 6 in the Los Angeles Star, showed a narrow victory for Pierce in Los Angeles County: 571 to 574 votes for his four electors versus 496 to 498 for Scott’s. (A few voters, apparently, split their votes between the two party slates.)

Soon after, the statewide tally showed that Pierce had carried California as a whole, and Andrés Pico traveled north to the state capital of Vallejo to participate in California’s electoral college proceedings. On Dec. 1, he met with his fellow Democratic electors – Sherwood, Gregory, and Henley, all northern California businessmen – and, as Southern California’s sole representative, cast one of the 254 electoral votes that placed Brig. Gen. Pierce in the White House.

1852 election returns for Los Angeles County
1852 election returns for Los Angeles County. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Star Collection, USC Digital Library.

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