The Rise and Fall of a Frontier Debating Society

By The Honorable A. F. Bray
November 13, 1939.

In the early days, the leisure time of some Californians was taken up in serious, literary pursuits, calculated to improve the mind. Take for example what some of the leading citizens of Martinez, the county seat of Contra Costa County, did. Incidentally, this information is disclosed by records in the County Clerk's office.

Apparently, in those days, the county was not very flush financially, so the then County Clerk very thriftily used as the book of Records of Oaths and Bonds which the law required him to keep, a book which had been originally used as the minute book of the Martinez Lyceum. The first 16 pages of this book contain the minutes and constitution of that organization. Either the Lyceum disbanded or obtained a new book, most likely the former. Thereupon the County Clerk stapled together the first sixteen pages of the book and then started copying into the record of Oaths and Bonds taken by county and township officers upon assuming office, which he was required by law to keep. An examination of these minutes cast an interesting sidelight on the viewpoint of those days. Let us examine them for a moment.

They state that on the 9th day of January 1854, the citizens of Martinez met at the Court House for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of forming a Lyceum. The dictionary says that a Lyceum is an association for debate and literary improvement. It was decided for form such a Lyceum, and a committee was formed to draft the necessary constitution and by-laws, and another committee of five members was appointed to select a question for discussion at the next meeting. During the evening this committee reported that it had selected for the next debate this question: "Will the discovery of gold in California prove to be a National Benefit?" Notice that the question was not "will it?" In other worlds they were living then so close to the discovery of gold that they had to speculate upon its future effect, whereas, today, we can look back and evaluate its past effect.

Well, anyway, at the next meeting, two weeks later, the momentous debate took place, after the gathering had first adopted a Constitution and By-laws. One or two of their provisions are interesting. Take the preamble: "Whereas, we, the citizens of Martinez, and vicinity, are desirous of improving ourselves in the art of Public Speaking, and also for the purpose of improving our social relations, do adopt the following Constitution." The meetings were provided to be held every Saturday evening at 7 o'clock. The officers were to hold office for only four weeks and then new officers were to be elected. Thus, the organization would change its officers twelve time a year. Apparently, this Lyceum was like the Mexican Army, all the members had to be officers. Listen to duties of the President. "It shall be the duty of the President at the first regular meeting after his election to deliver an oration, read an original essay or recite a declamation." The Vice President is required to perform the duties of the President in his absence, but for some reason undisclosed he is expressly exempted from having to make the oration, or perform the other literary requirements of the President. Apparently, the President was to chosen for his literary attainments, but the Vice President could be a regular fellow. No dues were required.

Probably they considered that having to listen to a President's oration once a month, was payment enough. Members who desire to speak "shall respectfully address the President nor shall he proceed until announced by the President as having the floor. No member shall be allowed to speak more than twenty minutes at any one time upon any one subject under discussion, nor more than once until all present have had an opportunity to speak. No member shall be allowed to speak more than five minutes upon any subject except the question for discussion, nor shall he be permitted to speak more than twice upon any one subject at the same meeting except by a vote of three-fourths of the members present." Someone should call these rules to the attention of the United States Senate.

It was provided that the President "shall after the discussion of the question decide as to the weight of argument." Let us see how he decided some of the weighty questions discussed. As stated before, the first question debated was, "Will the discovery of gold in California prove to be a Nation benefit?" Three members argued that it would, one member argued that it would not. Either the one member was a crackerjack arguer, or the national prospects did not appear too bright at that time, for the President decide in favor of the negative, namely, that the discovery of gold in California would not be a National benefit. Looking back upon that question from today, we realize that the President missed that answer by a long mile.

The next question debated was, "Is it policy to divide the mineral portion of the state from the agricultural district?" Three members thought this a good idea, one member oppose it, and after finishing his argument, feeling that he needed support, he made a motion that by-standers be permitted to join in the debate. But even with the help of the by-standers, the President supported the affirmative and decided that the mineral portion of the state should be divided from the agricultural.

The next question considered by the Lyceum was "Is it Just and Proper to compensate settlers for improvements made on lands that eventually are determined to be private lands?" This was quite a burning question, as at that time land titles were very questionable, squatters were taking up lands and improving them, and others who relied upon the validity of Spanish and Mexican grants were building homes on the property, and in many instances the titles upon which the improver relied were found to be invalid. This question evoked considerable debate. There were five argued for the affirmative and three for the negative. The President decided in favor of the negative, thus, holding that it was not just or proper to compensate settlers for improvements made on the other fellow's land.

The next burning question was, "Will the acquisition of more territory be a benefit to the United States?" This was the first question where the number of debaters on each side were equal in number. There were two for and two against the proposition. The President decided in favor of the negative and that the acquisition of more territory to the United States would not be a benefit. However, this did not deter the United States from thereafter acquiring Alaska and Hawaii.

The next question was quite abstract and metaphysical. "Is man a free moral agent?" Here, for the first time those upholding the negative outnumbered those upholding the affirmative. Three members said man was not a free moral agent and two said he was. Numbers seemed to win this time, and President upheld the negative and took away man's freedom of action.

The next question suggested was again an abstract one, "Is the old and new testament an infinite law?" This must have been a question of absorbing interest for it was upheld by four debaters for the affirmative and four for the negative. In deciding this question the President showed his religious leanings. He determined that the testaments were infinite law, and then, at the next meeting came a question, that, in view of the attitude of the men of those days, it is surprising was even considered debatable, "Ought females in the United States be entitled to enjoy rights equal to the males?"

In those days in considering their relationships to the opposite sexes, women were not women but merely females, although the question was selected in the foregoing language at one meeting, when the matter came on for debate at the next meeting it was considered that the question was improperly phrased, so, upon motion, the question was changed to read: "Should the females of the United States be entitled to all the rights and privileges equal with that of the males?" While this sounds like the other question only different words, there must have been thought to be considerable difference between the two questions to cause so much commotion as the require the change by formal motion from the floor. Well, after all these preliminaries, the debate really got going, four men to each side. In view of the ideas of the times, it must have been quite a distasteful task for those upholding the affirmative to have to argue that females should be given the same rights and privileges as the males. Of course, they were licked before they started, because no man of that time would have dared to find in their favor, and true to form the President approved the arguments of the negative side and held that female should not be entitled to rights and privileges equal to those of the males.

By the time this momentous debate had been completed the Lyceum had been in existence for about two months. They had evidently run out of topics considered proper for discussion, for in determining the question to be debated at the next meeting they reverted to the question which they first discussed, "Will the discovery of gold in California prove a national benefit?" and selected it for their next meeting. For some reason which history fails to record, that was the last meeting of the Martinez Lyceum; As the next entry in the minute book is the first entry by the County Clerk, a copy of the bond given in 1855 by the Justice of the Peace of the third township of Contra Costa County.

One could speculate for hours upon the question of what caused the end of the promising Martinez Lyceum. Could it have been the fact that when four men were willing to argue in favor of the proposition that females should be given rights equal to those of the males, the members suddenly realized how dangerous their organization was becoming? One will never know. It is one of the deep, dark secrets locked up in the dim and distant past.

Suggested Reading:

Go Back


Leave comments for the webmaster here.