NEW BOOK: Freedom by State Senator Nelson S. Dilworth

Freedom by Nelson S. Dilworth
Freedom by Nelson S. Dilworth

New available on is Freedom: Reflections on What Makes America Great from a Veteran of World War I by State Senator Nelson S. Dilworth.

Dilworth had a varied career, including time as a rancher, a newspaper publisher, and lawmaker. After serving as the publisher of the Coachella Valley News, Dilworth enlisted in the U.S. Army and deployed to France during World War I where he “learned again how much I love my native land.”

In a political career that would span nearly a quarter century, he delivered powerful speeches on the unique freedoms granted to Americans by the Constitution and the opportunities and high standard of living given American citizens by the free market.

In themes echoed by Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech more than a decade later, Dilworth also repeatedly discussed the important concept that this unique freedom is both precious and fragile, and must be preserved and valued by each generation in order to be passed to the next.

“I feel safe in asserting that it is both obvious and apparent that we, today, are the beneficiaries of the courageous past achievements of our forefathers in political liberty and political institutions… In our hands rests all that is precious in America… We are, you see, the trustees of the future. It is your high privilege to preserve the best in America, to improve it, and pass it on to posterity, your children and mine. We can, in honor and integrity, do no less.” – Nelson S. Dilworth

The 129-year-old Case of Robert Desty

In the first years of California statehood, the number of individuals who served in the state legislature was huge. With shorter sessions (one-year Assembly terms and two-year Senate terms) and very few legislators who served multiple terms, each decade saw hundreds of new lawmakers rather than the 120-150 that we’ve seen in recent years.

For nearly a year, I’ve been working on tracking down the missing biographic information for early state legislators. Very few details were kept, usually just their name (frequently with abbreviated first names), counties represented, and political party affiliation. The lack of details makes it hard to find them after leaving office, but even minimal details (like full name, birth and death dates, and birthplace) makes it easier to find obituaries and census information.

Although new information is added regularly, it’s fairly rare to find information that changes the actual number of legislators. Most recently, it was in May 2019 that a spelling error (made over a century ago) was found to have resulted in Assemblyman R. H. Myers being counted twice with slightly different spellings of his name.

Research in recent weeks has uncovered another interesting corrections to the list of State Senators.

Robert Desty
There were a number of historic sources that would seem to indicate that Robert Desty served in the Senate. The list of legislators published in the California Blue Book has included Desty as a Senator since it was first published in 1891. At the same time, it does not include any other people who were elected to the legislature but never served (you can find the list of known examples here).

In the Senate Journal, the official record of the events that take place in the Senate, Page 1 for the 1880 Session explains the start of the session as;

“The Secretary [of the Senate] was then directed to call the roll of the Senators elect, and the following Senators responded…
Eight District – San Francisco and San Mateo…. Robert Desty”
[and continued]
“The Senators elect now took and subscribed to the oath of office, administered by the President of the Senate…”

Journal of the Twenty-third Session of the Senate of the State of California (pp. 1-2)

According to this section, it definitely appeared that after being elected, Desty had appeared and been sworn in. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Page 4 of the Senate Journal has the first indication that something is wrong, continuing to refer to Desty as “Senator elect” and not recording him as having cast any votes during his first days in office… It’s because he was in New York.

Robert Desty

Desty, whose full name was Robert Daillebout d’Estimauville de Beaumauchal, was born in Canada and moved to the United States as a young man and and applied for citizenship in New York at age 22. After receiving notice from a court that his citizenship application had been accepted, he began his new life as an American citizen. In 1880, Desty ran for the California State Senate and won.

Immediately after the election, allegations were made that Desty had not completed the naturalization process and wasn’t actually a citizen. Soon after the 1879 election, Desty returned to New York and found that although he had filed a petition to become a citizen in 1849 (and received a certificate recognizing his application), he never formally became a citizen in New York at that time.

Desty returned to California and claimed to have been naturalized in San Francisco (but that the records were destroyed in an 1850 fire) and petitioned to have his citizenship take place retroactively. The petition was declined, and he immediately renewed his application for citizenship. Desty became a U.S. citizen on February 24, 1880.

A week after he became a citizen, the San Francisco Election Commission ruled that because he hadn’t been a citizen when he registered to vote, the application was retroactively denied and ordered that Desty’s name be “stricken from the Great Register” of voters. Within a week of that, on March 5th, the Senate Committee on Elections reported that Desty was not entitled to the seat claimed by him because he hadn’t become a citizen until February 24th. The committee report was approved by the full Senate on a 23-14 vote, disqualifying him as a Senator, and officially vacating his seat.

What apparently caused confusion for nearly thirteen decades was that the Senate Journal appeared to show Desty being sworn into office, but that he was never sworn in prior to having his certificate of election rejected by the Senate on February 25th.

Unlike the nine people who were elected to office but died before assuming office or the five who declined to serve, Desty was treated by historians as a Senator who was elected, did not decline to service, and did everything he could to assume office for two months before eventually being denied his office. That’s why, even though he never actually assumed office, he has held a place on the list of California legislators for 130 years.

A Title Lost: California’s Legislative Historian

Associate Governmental Program Analyst.

Agricultural Technician III.

Data Processing Manager.

Most job titles in California State Government are formulaic series of words that, while useful in understanding the duties of the position, are so wickedly unimaginative that you have to wonder if they were created by a committee.

Yes, in fact, they were.

But sometimes, very rarely and usually only in the distant past, the state has come up with a job title that rocks. Many of these have been too awesome to last, and have eventually been lost to time. From the Guardian of Yosemite (first appointed 1866 and renamed around 1900), to the once-powerful Railroad Commissioners (created in 1879 and renamed in 1946) and of course the Disaster Acting Governors, the California government has occasionally outdone itself.

Don A. Allen, California's Legislative Historian

Don A. Allen

As someone who has spent years studying the legislature and history of state laws, there are few titles more awesome that the one given only once, in 1966. That June, the California Legislature passed a concurrent resolution bestowing the title of Legislative Historian on outgoing Assemblyman Don A. Allen Sr. So what had Allen done to earn this completely awesome title? It’s a great story.

Allen was born in 1907 in a 5,000-person town in western Iowa, leaving as a teenager after joining the Marines. He served in the Haitian Campaign and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, where Allen (a Democrat) served in the same unit as his friend and future Assembly colleague Charles Edward Chapel (a Republican).

Allen was elected to the Assembly in 1938 and served from 1939 until he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1947. In 1940, while serving as a member of the Fact Finding Committee on Government Efficiency and Economy, Allen began “a comprehensive study of the history of the Legislature” that would last more than 20 years.

He served on the Council for a decade (1947-1956), in what he later called “my temporary departure from the Legislature.” In June 1956, Los Angeles voters returned Allen to the legislature in a special election resulting from the resignation of Delbert Morris after his conviction for illegally selling state liquor licenses [See: Howard Cramer: Forgotten Legislative Hero].

Having won the special election (they happen when they happen) but having a little more work to finish before leaving the Council, Allen declined to be sworn into office for three months after the election (the longest delay in assuming office in state history). Allen was reelected in the November election and got back to work when the new session started.

It’s interesting (and probably instructive for new 12-year legislators) that in his 18 years as a legislator, Allen is best remembered for the mastery he demonstrated in his last two terms. What defined Allen most as a legislator (as frequently happened in the age before term limits) was his dedication to a single policy area; legislative history.

As a member (and eventually Chair) of the Assembly Committee on Elections and Reapportionment, Allen was able to use his years of collecting and studying old redistricting maps and the history of the Legislature. As the case Reynolds v. Sims (relating to state legislative districts) began to gain attention, Allen wrote a series of memos to his Assembly colleagues describing prior redistricting disputes and how the membership of the Legislature had been impacted.

In June 1964, the Warren Court ruled that legislative districts had to be equal in size, and the California Legislature was required to immediately redistrict the State Senate to meet the “one man, one vote” standard. The deadline for the new districts was July 1, 1965.

Allen switched into high gear, compiling data and statistics from two decades of research into a single volume. The resulting book, the Legislative Sourcebook was a reference that has never since been equaled by a legislative publication. How can you possibly not love a book that has 200 pages of narrative and charts followed by an additional 287 pages of appendices?

In early 1965, the Legislature passed a resolution recognizing the Sourcebook as “a work of major historical significance” and authorizing the printing of 10,000 copies, to be distributed for $3 each.

The Legislature met the court-imposed deadline, stripping the rural counties of their dominance of the Senate and transforming the upper house into the body we know it as today. In June 1965, shortly after the court-imposed deadline, the Legislature approved ACR 63, creating the position of Legislative Historian and conferring it (for life) on Allen.

Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 63
Relative to position of Legislative Historian

[Filed with Secretary of State June 21, 1966]

WHEREAS, Don A. Allen, Sr., has labored in the vineyards of California history, especially history pertaining to the California beginning in 1941; and
WHEREAS, He has haunted the archives since being first introduced to them by the former Archivist, Bart Greer; and
WHEREAS, Down through the years Don A. Allen, Sr., has furnished at his own expense memeographed memoranda which have proven to be of extreme value, both educational and instructive, to all members of both houses; and
WHEREAS, He was persuaded to include much of this material in the Legislative Source Book, which has been published and is acknowledged by many scholars as the greatest biblography to have ever been contained in a document of this kind; and
WHEREAS, Don A. Allen, Sr., has waived all rights, royalties or copyrights and has made this a labor of love to the State of California; and
WHEREAS, The Members of the Legislature are deeply grateful to Don A. Allen, Sr., for his outstanding contributions and selfless service to the Legislature and to the people of the entire State of California; now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, the Senate thereof concurring, That the position of Legislative Historian is hereby created, to be held without compensation or state expense, and is hereby conferred upon Don A. Allen, Sr., for so long as he shall live.

Allen held the title for slightly more than 18 years, during which time he continued his dedication by founding the Association of Former California Legislators. Allen, California’s only official Legislative Historian, died in Sacramento in 1983.