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James D. Phelan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James D. Phelan
PHELAN, JAMES D. HONORABLE LCCN2016858166 (cropped).jpg
United States Senator
from California
In office
March 4, 1915 – March 4, 1921
Preceded byGeorge Clement Perkins
Succeeded bySamuel M. Shortridge
25th Mayor of San Francisco
In office
January 4, 1897 – January 7, 1902
Preceded byAdolph Sutro
Succeeded byEugene Schmitz
Personal details
Born(1861-04-20)April 20, 1861
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedAugust 7, 1930(1930-08-07) (aged 69)
Saratoga, California, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Alma materSt. Ignatius College
University of California-Berkeley

James Duval Phelan (April 20, 1861 – August 7, 1930) was an American politician, civic leader and banker. He served as Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902 and represented California in the United States Senate from 1915 to 1921. Phelan was also active in the movement to restrict Japanese and Chinese immigration to the United States.

Early years

Phelan was born in San Francisco, the son of James Phelan and Alice Kelly. James Phelan (1819–1892) was an Irish immigrant who became wealthy during the California Gold Rush as a trader, merchant, banker and real estate investor. He founded the First National Gold Bank, later “known as the First National Bank of San Francisco.”[1] This was not only the “first national bank in California,”[2] but also “the second gold bank in the nation.”[3] This business venture was followed by his assistance in the “organization of the American Construction and Dredging Company.”[4] This company’s purpose was to dredge the Panama Canal. Shortly after he established the “Mutual Savings Bank of San Francisco.”[5] Not only was this what James Phelan was born into, but Phelan’s father also “established a copartnership with him comprising all of his business interests.”[6] The obituary of James Phelan’s mother, Alice,[1] was published in February of 1900 in The San Francisco Call. It is here where her birthright is recounted, stating that she came from “one of the most historic families of the ancient Irish nobility...the O’Mores of Leix.”[7] Their family line was struck by great tragedy in the “fearful massacre of Mullagast” that almost took out their entire family. Alice eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York where she met her future husband, also originally from Ireland, James Phelan. It was after they met that he was to head west to “lay the foundation of the vast fortune which he afterward accumulated.” [2]

James D. Phelan graduated from St. Ignatius College in 1881. He had two sisters, Alice Phelan Sullivan and Mary Louis Phelan.[3]


Phelan studied law at the University of California, Berkeley and then became a banker. He was elected Mayor of San Francisco and served from 1897 until 1902, in three 2-year terms. He pushed for the reform City Charter of 1898 in San Francisco. He served as the first president of the League of California Cities, which was created in 1898.[4] Phelan was elected as a Senator of the United States and served from 1915 to 1921.[5] During this time, Phelan established himself as a leader in what fellow anti-Japanese agitator V. S. McClatchy described as the "holy cause" of Japanese exclusion.[6] He remained active in the anti-Japanese movement after leaving office, securing then-presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson's support for restricting Japanese immigration in 1912 and helping to push through California's discriminatory alien land law in 1913.[7] Phelan was also an advocate for excluding Chinese from the United States. He promoted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and wrote an article "Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded"(1901)[8] in the North American Review, to increase support for the extension of these laws. In a debate with Imperial Chinese Consul Ho Yow, Phelan mentioned that the Chinese were an undesirable population because they had strong ties to their native country and were incapable of assimilating to the American society. This debate occurred just nineteen months after the outbreak of plague in San Francisco's Chinatown.[9] Phelan mentioned that the Chinese had different mindsets and that after twenty years, they remained unchanged in their values. He concluded that American progress would be stunted if the United States continued to allow Chinese immigrants to remain in the country, and that the Chinese workers were taking work away from white workers.[10]

Water and land rights

In the 1900s, Phelan bought land and water acreage in various places around the San Francisco Bay Area, and he obtained the rights to the water flow of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Ethan A. Hitchcock, Secretary of the Interior under President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to stop Phelan, but Roosevelt decided that the wild area could be used for "the permanent material development of the region."[11] Phelan's plans for the region included publicly funded water and electricity for a geographical entity he called "Greater San Francisco."[11] With his Bohemian Club fellows, Phelan sought to annex land at the perimeter of San Francisco Bay.[11]

San Francisco Plague

The Exempt firemen of San Francisco; their unique and gallant record (1900)
Phelan during his term as Mayor

In 1900, San Francisco citizens distrusted government for previous waste of taxpayers' money as well as previous refusal to enhance community resources.[12] Government officials refused to invest in public health because health was seen as a personal concern or even a commodity. For this reason, citizens had a lot of hope in Mayor Phelan, who had previously declared the need for healthier living conditions as well as the need for "health departments to provide salutary environments."[13]

During his tenure as the Mayor of San Francisco, Phelan and his administration were faced with dealing with the plague of 1900–1904 that infected the city's Chinatown community. Prior to the plague outbreak in Chinatown, Phelan was an active advocate for improving public health in San Francisco. On October 25, 1897, Phelan addressed the California health board in San Francisco and stated that government intervention was needed in order to establish healthier living conditions.[13] He argued that public health departments required more funding to help improve living conditions. Furthermore, in 1899, Phelan continued his strong advocacy for public health and the prevention of disease through city measures. Later that year, in a shocking move, he opted instead to support an $18-million-dollar bond to create a new hospital, schools, and city parks.[14] On September 1899, Phelan and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors further defunded the cities health department. The San Francisco health department was only allocated $155,960 with two-thirds of that going towards the operation of municipal hospital.[14] Shortly after, the health board members were released from their duties due to political in-house fighting and excessive patronage. After being sworn in, Phelan's new health department board members discovered that the department was broke and that within the first six months of fiscal year 1899-1900 the department had already spent the majority of its budget.[15] Through the defunding and mishandling of the department, Phelan and his administration left the health department and the city ill-prepared for what was looming around the corner.

On June 1900 San Francisco's city hall received the news that Joseph J. Kinyoun had instituted a travel ban in hopes of preventing the spread of the plague to the rest of the country. Mayor Phelan confirmed the news by stating that Kinyoun had notified him personally about the travel ban. Phelan went on to blame the federal court ruling that restricted the ability of the local government to deal with the plague.[16] In order to improve sanitary living conditions in Chinatown, Governor Gage proposed to hire inspectors and workers to eradicate the plague. Governor Henry Gage requested for Mayor Phelan and his administration to match the states $25,000 contribution. However, Phelan informed Governor Gage that the city did not have the resources to match the states contribution. After meeting with Governor Gage, Phelan and his Board of Supervisors agreed to contribute $6,000.[17] On the summer of 1901, Mayor Phelan publicly announced that he would not run for another term. "During his final address before leaving office, Phelan praised the health board, claiming that because of its vigilance the city 'was saved from Oriental infection.'" [18] Phelan concluded by thanking the federal government and their efforts to help the city endure the crisis.

Although the San Francisco Plague in Chinatown was reported in journalism, the material printed was prone to exaggerations, biased information, and focused on making the Chinese population look substandard. Newspapers were heavily averse to the Democratic Phelan administration and believed the health officials were corrupt and wasteful. For this reason, publications refused to print public health initiatives to prevent disease outbreaks and instead would focus on the community's lack of sanitation. Acts of racism were apparent because publications were heavily inclined to use offensive images and headlines to attract attention of readers.[19]

Earthquake recovery efforts

During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Phelan was a member of the Committee of Fifty, called into existence by Mayor Schmitz to manage the crisis. Afterward, when Dr. Edward Thomas Devine, representing the American Red Cross by appointment of President Roosevelt, was responsible for Relief and Red Cross Funds, ex-Mayor Phelan was allowed to assist Devine, thus keeping the money out of the hands of Schmitz and Abe Ruef. Phelan became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds when Devine was relieved of his post in July 1906.[citation needed]

U.S. Senate

A 1920 reelection campaign pamphlet touting Phelan's white supremacy
A 1920 reelection campaign pamphlet touting Phelan's white supremacy

As a Democrat, Phelan ran for the U.S. Senate against Republican Joseph R. Knowland and Progressive Francis J. Heney. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1914 and served from March 4, 1915, to March 3, 1921. Although he had toned down his anti-Japanese rhetoric during World War I, when the United States had allied with Japan, in 1919, Phelan once again began to speak out against the "Yellow Peril," delivering a speech in favor of Japanese exclusion before a special session of the state legislature.[7] He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1920, defeated by Republican Samuel M. Shortridge, coming in second with 40% of the vote. His defeat may have been the result of his racially tinged campaign; one of his reelection campaign posters contained the headline "Keep California White."[7] (This poster is displayed at the Japanese American National Museum). During his time in the Senate, he was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Railroads during the 64th Congress and of the U.S. Senate Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands during the 65th Congress.

Later life

After his time in the Senate, Phelan returned to banking and collected art. He remained active in the anti-Japanese movement, collaborating with McClatchy and the Japanese Exclusion League of California to successfully ban Japanese immigrants from entering the country with the Immigration Act of 1924.[7] First National Bank of San Francisco merged with Crocker National Bank in 1925.[20] Phelan died at his country estate Villa Montalvo in Saratoga in 1930. He is buried in the family mausoleum in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.



Despite his contributions to San Francisco’s economic and industrial growth, James D. Phelan's white nativist ideology has caused controversy as his life story is looked at from a social justice point of view. His infamous slogan while running for re-election in the US Senate, “Keep California White”,[25] earned allies as well as enemies in the early 20th century and he was defeated. Previously Mayor of San Francisco, his bust is in City Hall.[26] Currently, many question if he deserves such an honored position. The statue of Junipero Serra he gave to San Francisco as a gift was torn down during the 2020-2021 Black Lives Matter Protests over concerns with the message it sent. Phelan consistently advocated for the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 Immigration Act, and recommended the relocation of Japanese immigrants on multiple occasions (“The Japanese Evil in California"). He called the increasing diversity in San Francisco a “Silent Invasion” and on many occasions, vowed to “Stop it.”

See also


  1. ^ "Death of Mrs. Phelan, Mother of the Mayor". California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  2. ^ Clark, S. B. F. (1929). How many miles from St. Jo?: The log of Sterling B. F. Clark, a forty-niner, with comments. San Francisco: Priv. print (includes a brief autobiography of James Phelan) online at HathiTrust
  3. ^ Legacy of a Native Son: James Duval Phelan & Villa Montalvo, pg. 10, (1993), by James P. Walsh and Timothy J. O'Keefe; "Creating the Fortune, Creating the Family," Journal of the West, (Spring, 1992) by James P. Walsh
  4. ^ "League of California Cities - Mission & History".
  5. ^ Cherny, Robert. ""CITY COMMERCIAL, CITY BEAUTIFUL, CITY PRACTICAL: The San Francisco Visions Of William C. Ralston, James D. Phelan, And Michael M. O'Shaughnessy,"". FoundSF.
  6. ^ Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p 91.
  7. ^ a b c d Niiya, Brian. "James D. Phelan". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  8. ^ D. Phelan, James. ""Why The Chinese Should Be Excluded"". The American Yawp Paper.
  9. ^ Barkan, Elliott Robert (May 11, 2007). From All Points: America's Immigrant West, 1870s-1952. Indiana University Press. p. 125.
  10. ^ Phelan, James D. (1901). "Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded". The North American Review. 173 (540): 663–676. JSTOR 25105245.
  11. ^ a b c Brechin, Gray. WRCA News, October 2000, Volume 7, Number 3. Populist Rhetoric, Private Gain Archived July 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on July 2, 2009.
  12. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  13. ^ a b Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  14. ^ a b Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  15. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  16. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 140&141. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  17. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 179–181. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  18. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 193–194. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  19. ^ Risse, Guenter B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4214-0510-0.
  20. ^ The Cumulative Daily Digest of Corporation News. Moody manual Company. 1925. p. 268.
  21. ^ "Phelan Avenue to be renamed Frida Kahlo Way after public vote". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  22. ^ "Judges announced in Phelan contest". Berkeley Daily Gazette. January 18, 1935. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
  23. ^ "USF drops former SF mayor's name from dorms over racist views". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved May 11, 2017.
  24. ^ ""Phelan, James D. (James Duval), 1861-1930"". Social Networks and Archival Context (snac). James Duval Phelan Papers.
  25. ^ Phelan, Mark. "'Keep California White'—James D. Phelan and the 'Yellow Peril' race controversy". History Ireland. History Publications.
  26. ^ "James Phelan". City and County of San Francisco. City Hall.
  • Legacy of a Native Son: James Duval Phelan & Villa Montalvo (1993) by James P. Walsh and Timothy O'Keefe and
  • "Creating the Fortune, Creating the Family," Journal of the West, (April 1992), by James P. Walsh

Works cited

  • Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts: The San Francisco Earthquake (Stein and Day, New York; Souvenir Press, London, 1971; reprinted Dell, 1972, SBN 440-07631)

External links

Party political offices
after direct election of Senators was adopted in 1913
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from California
(Class 3)

1914, 1920
Succeeded by
John B. Elliott
Political offices
Preceded by
Adolph Sutro
Mayor of San Francisco
Succeeded by
Eugene Schmitz
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
George C. Perkins
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from California
Served alongside: John D. Works, Hiram Johnson
Succeeded by
Samuel M. Shortridge
This page was last edited on 3 August 2021, at 16:30
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