Jump to content

James D. Phelan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James D. Phelan
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
James Duval Phelan

(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 nonpartisan Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. As mayor he advocated municipally run utilities and tried to protect his constituents from the monopolistic practices of the trusts. He represented California in the United States Senate from 1915 to 1921 as a Democrat. Phelan was a progressive supporter of the policies of Woodrow Wilson and was a leader in the movement to restrict Japanese and Chinese immigration to the United States.[1]

Early years[edit]

Phelan was born in San Francisco, the son of Irish immigrant and banker, James Phelan and Alice Kelly.

In 1881 Phelan graduated from the Catholic Jesuit college in San Francisco, St. Ignatius College. He had two sisters, Alice Phelan Sullivan and Mary Louis Phelan.[2]


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.[3] Phelan was elected as a Senator of the United States and served from 1915 to 1921.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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)[7] 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.[8] 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 because they worked for so much lower wages and an accustomed lower standard of living, allowing their labor to be exploited unfairly, driving down conditions of labor and standards of living generally.[9]

Water and land rights[edit]

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."[10] Phelan's plans for the region included publicly funded water and electricity for a geographical entity he called "Greater San Francisco."[10] With his Bohemian Club fellows, Phelan sought to annex land at the perimeter of San Francisco Bay.[10]

San Francisco Plague[edit]

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.[11] 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."[12]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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 a municipal hospital.[13] 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.[14] 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.

In 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.[15] In order to improve sanitary living conditions in Chinatown, Governor Henry Gage proposed to hire inspectors and workers to eradicate the plague. Gage requested for Mayor Phelan and his administration to match the state's $25,000 contribution. However, Phelan informed Governor Gage that the city did not have the resources to match the state's contribution. After meeting with Governor Gage, Phelan and his Board of Supervisors agreed to contribute $6,000.[16] In 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.'" [17] 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 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.[18]

Earthquake recovery efforts[edit]

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.

U.S. Senate[edit]

A 1920 reelection campaign pamphlet touting Phelan's white supremacy
Political poster for 1920 reelection campaign depicting the hand of Uncle Sam grabbing the wrist of a Japanese-American reaching for a map of California

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.[6] He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1920, defeated by Republican Samuel M. Shortridge, coming in second with 40% of the vote. His re-election campaign relied on racial fears; one of his reelection campaign posters contained the headline "Keep California White."[6] (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[edit]

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.[6] First National Bank of San Francisco merged with Crocker National Bank in 1925.[19] 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.


  • Upon his death, Phelan bequeathed the Villa Montalvo estate for use as a public park. Since 1930, it has been a center for the performing and visual arts called Montalvo Arts Center. Some of his mementos and correspondence are on display in the library at Villa Montalvo.
  • Phelan Avenue, the main thoroughfare on the Ocean Campus of the City College of San Francisco, named after him was changed in 2018 to Frida Kahlo Way after a public vote.[20]
  • The unincorporated community of Phelan, California was named for him and his brother.
  • The James D. Phelan awards, given to young California writers and artists, were established by a bequest in his will.[21]
  • A dormitory at the University of San Francisco used to be called Phelan Hall but was renamed in 2017 after protests by students concerned about Phelan's racist views.[22]
  • In 1887, James D. Phelan's father bought an 11-acre parcel on Point Santa Cruz as a family summer retreat, called Phelan Park. The property stayed in the family until a great-niece, Alice Sullivan Doyle, died in 1932. A year earlier Mrs. Doyle had funded construction of the Mission Santa Cruz chapel replica, and she is buried in an alcove off the chapel.[23] A large portion of Phelan Park was given to the Oblates of St. Joseph, and the rest became Lighthouse Field State Beach in 1978.
  • As mayor, he promoted bond issues for new sewer systems, city hospitals, and schools.[24]
  • Despite his contributions to San Francisco’s economic and industrial growth, James D. Phelan's white nativist ideology has caused controversy. His infamous slogan while running for re-election in the US Senate, “Keep California White”,[25] earned allies as well as enemies and he was defeated.

See also[edit]

  • John P. Irish, who opposed Phelan over the latter's anti-Japanese proposals


  1. ^ Price, Emily (September 5, 2023). "Discover China Beach, a hidden San Francisco gem with stellar views". San Francisco Gate. Archived from the original on November 11, 2023. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ "League of California Cities - Mission & History".
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b c d Niiya, Brian. "James D. Phelan". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 13, 2014.
  7. ^ D. Phelan, James. ""Why The Chinese Should Be Excluded"". The American Yawp Paper.
  8. ^ Barkan, Elliott Robert (May 11, 2007). From All Points: America's Immigrant West, 1870s-1952. Indiana University Press. p. 125.
  9. ^ Phelan, James D. (1901). "Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded". The North American Review. 173 (540): 663–676. JSTOR 25105245.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ The Cumulative Daily Digest of Corporation News. Moody manual Company. 1925. p. 268.
  20. ^ "Phelan Avenue to be renamed Frida Kahlo Way after public vote". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  21. ^ "Judges announced in Phelan contest". Berkeley Daily Gazette. January 18, 1935. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
  22. ^ "USF drops former SF mayor's name from dorms over racist views". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved May 11, 2017.
  23. ^ "Santa Cruz Mission Today – Holy Cross Catholic Church of Santa Cruz". Retrieved April 12, 2022.
  24. ^ ""Phelan, James D. (James Duval), 1861-1930"". Social Networks and Archival Context (snac). James Duval Phelan Papers.
  25. ^ Phelan, Mark (June 25, 2018). "'Keep California White'—James D. Phelan and the 'Yellow Peril' race controversy". History Ireland. History Publications.
  • 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)

Further reading[edit]

  • Cherny, Robert W. "City Commercial, City Beautiful, City Practical: The San Francisco Visions of William C. Ralston, James D. Phelan, and Michael M. O’Shaughnessy." in The Pacific World (Routledge, 2017) pp. 355–366.
  • Elrick, John. "Social conflict and the politics of reform: Mayor James D. Phelan and the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1901." California History 88.2 (2011): 4-27.
  • Hennings, Robert E. "James D. Phelan and the Woodrow Wilson Anti-Oriental Statement of May 3, 1912." California Historical Society Quarterly 42.4 (1963): 291-300.
  • Hennings, Robert E. James D. Phelan and the Wilson Progressives of California (1985) online review
  • Issel, William, and Robert W. Cherny. San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development (1986)

External links[edit]

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 Mayor of San Francisco
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 3) from California
Served alongside: John D. Works, Hiram Johnson
Succeeded by