John Bigler

John Bigler bigraphy, stories - Governor of California

John Bigler : biography

1805-1-8 – 29 November 1871

John Bigler (January 8, 1805November 29, 1871) was an American lawyer, politician and diplomat. A Democrat, he served as the third governor of California from 1852 to 1856 and was the first California governor to complete an entire term in office, as well as the first to win re-election. His younger brother, William Bigler, was elected governor of Pennsylvania during the same period. Bigler was also appointed by President James Buchanan as the U.S. Minister to Chile from 1857 to 1861.


Assuming the governorship on January 8, 1852, Bigler set out in his priorities to protect the state’s highly profitable mining interests from leasing or outside monopolies, declaring them in his first inaugural address as "[being] left as free as the air we breathe." Bigler also prioritized bringing industrialization to California, encouraging industrial investment on behalf of the state government.

Anti-Chinese laws

Bigler also set out on a policy to openly target Chinese "coolie" immigrants from entering California. Claiming that the Chinese refused to and could never assimilate into American society, as well as their willingness to work with little pay, Bigler urged Californians to "check this tide of Asiatic immigration." While the previous administration of Governor John McDougall somewhat supported the Chinese presence in the state, Bigler advocated the revival of the 1850 Foreign Miners Tax, originally signed by anti-foreigner Governor Peter Burnett. Whereas the original 1850 law placed a US$20 a month tax on all miners of foreign origin, the Bigler-supported 1852 version of the law placed a US$3 a month tax exclusively for Chinese laborers. Over the course of his two terms in office, taxes for Chinese steadily increased with ever harsher bills passing the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Bigler. One law passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor created a US$50 tax per head for Chinese entering Californian ports that was to be paid within three days. The California Supreme Court later ruled the law unconstitutional.

As Sierra Nevada gold mine output came to a trickle by the early 1850s, followed by local financial panic caused by the discovery of gold in Australia, anger towards hard-working and labor-cheap Chinese grew from economically pressured miners, who desperately sought alternative work in California’s cities and ports. While Bigler aligned himself with popular anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese sentiment, these pressure ranks would later split from the Democrats and spill over into the anti-immigrant American Know-Nothing Party.

Opposition to the constriction of Chinese immigration was voiced by Norman Asing, a leader in San Francisco’s Chinese community, in an open letter published in 1852. He argued that "…we are not the degraded race you would make us" and that "…when your nation was a wilderness, and the nation from which you sprung barbarous, we exercised most of the arts and virtues of civilized life;" therefore, the Chinese should be free to contribute productively to the US.

Free Soil period

Pressure was also mounting on the Democratic Party itself in California in regards to slavery. By the 1853 general election campaign, large majorities of pro-slavery Democrats from Southern California, calling themselves the Chivalry (later branded as Lecompton Democrats), threatened to divide the state in half should the state not accept slavery. Bigler, along with former State Senator and Lieutenant Governor David C. Broderick from the previous McDougall Administration, formed the Free Soil Democratic faction, modeled after the federal Free Soil Party that argued against the spread of slavery. The Democrats effectively split into two camps, with both the Chivalry and Free Soilers nominating their own candidates for the 1853 election. Despite the party split, Bigler was able to overcome Whig Party challenger William Waldo and win a second term of office, the first governor to win a second term. No other elected California governor would win a first and second term until Hiram Johnson in 1914.