Mace was a practical politician
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Assemblyman Russel Perry Mace.
At first blush, the old rocking chair in the Madera County Courthouse Museum didn’t appear to be anything special. It just sat there outside the blacksmith shop, still and silent, never moving unless a visitor gave it a slight tap. If there was anything unusual about its appearance, it was in the fact that it was so well preserved for being so old.
In actuality, however, that old chair has a rather compelling story. It was presented to Captain Russel Perry Mace on the occasion of his leaving the California State Assembly. Standing there on the bottom floor of the museum, between the tack room and the blacksmith shop, one could almost hear the chair creak under the Captain’s 350 pound frame, and one could almost see Madera’s first Assemblyman leisurely rocking back and forth in pleasant reverie as he pondered his three terms in the California Legislature.
Mace first came to California during the gold rush. Shortly after the close of the Civil War, he was elected to the California State Assembly. Before making his first trip to Sacramento, Mace felt the political pulse of his constituency and found that there was a strong desire among the people to send a message to the nation. Not everyone in California rejoiced in the outcome of the War Between the States, and among the most dissatisfied were voters in the San Joaquin Valley.
Something had to be done to give vent to the frustration that existed in Mace’s district, and it didn’t take him long to come up with a plan. Once he had been sworn in, Mace introduced a bill, which raised eyebrows all over the country. His very first piece of legislation was a proposal for a joint resolution of the California Legislature. Mace wanted a pardon for the imprisoned President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis!
Now Assemblyman Mace didn’t live in a dream world. He knew that his bill didn’t stand a chance of passing. But that wasn’t the point. For him there was a principle involved. By urging clemency for Davis, the voters of Fresno County sent a powerful message to the rest of the state and the nation.
Despite the defeat of Mace’s first legislative effort, his more seasoned colleagues were inspired by his spunk, if not his logic. Any politician who had the nerve to suggest support for the nation’s most notorious jailbird could not go unrewarded, no matter how misguided. They continued to listen to Mace when he took the floor to argue for his last legislative proposal: “An Act to Protect Life in the Town of Fresno.”
By 1877, from his home in the newly founded town of Madera, Mace was worried about Fresno. He had watched that town grow from its birth in 1872, and, he didn’t like what he saw. Shootings on the streets of the new county seat had become common place — so much so that the Assemblyman began to doubt the efficacy of concealed weapons as a means of insuring domestic tranquillity. Therefore, he introduced his bill to take guns off the streets of Fresno.
It wasn’t that Assemblyman Mace was opposed to firearms. His run-ins with claim jumpers along Finegold Creek during his gold mining days had more than once sent him scrambling for his gun. What bothered Mace was the fact that shootings on the streets of Fresno had become common place — so much so that the Assemblyman began to doubt that carrying a concealed weapon would stop it; therefore, he introduced his legislation.
The initial opposition to Mace’s proposal came from the local citizens, and it was not long in coming. On Jan. 30, 1878, the publisher of the Fresno Expositor took the lawmaker to task, and what is interesting about the argument is that it made no appeal to the Second Amendment.
Instead, the newsman cited the fact that there just weren’t enough killings to warrant such a measure. According to the paper, there had not been a single shooting on the streets of Fresno that week!
So opposition to Mace’s bill grew, not because the locals expressed their belief in the right to bear arms, but because they felt that the times just weren’t quite violent enough. When Mace’s measure went down to defeat, he left the matter for future generations to settle.
That 1878 session of the Legislature was Mace’s last. After that he concentrated on operating his Yosemite Hotel in Madera, but he could often be seen on the porch of his establishment in his rocking chair presented to him by his colleagues in the Assembly, and you can see it too.
After this COVID-19 pandemic is gone, simply come on out and ask one of the volunteer docents of the Madera County Historical Society to show you Captain Mace’s “thinking chair.”