Dec. 5 – There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

On Dec. 5, 1848, President James K. Polk set off what became the gold rush of 1849 by confirming that gold had, indeed, been discovered in California.One of the interesting aspects of the gold rush is the spontaneous communities that it created. So many people moved so fast, that communities formed, were self-organized, and sometimes disbanded before the normal services of government had chance to get established. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, miners misbehaved, crimes were committed, and justice needed to be meted out. To solve the problem of policing without any police, courts, or even jails, miners established their own judicial systems, based on the consent of the governed, out of a kind of temporary Lockean state of nature. The courts had several peculiarities, arising in a common law sort of way. For instance, since miners worked hard all week, but enforced a ban on working on Sundays among themselves, all trials started and ended on Sunday. Since no one had time to act as a jailer (come Monday, they all rushed back to their claims), jail-time was not an options. Courts had three choices of verdict: a fine, exile (with death being the penalty for returning), the death penalty, and acquittal. Surprisingly, there was a high acquittal rate. The miners seemed to take their jury duty seriously, weighted the evidence, and rendered justice all without a government to guide them.


  1. What are the possible benefits of a system of spontaneous justice as described above?
  2. Do you think such miner communities met the definition of self-determination? Would you consider their verdicts just even though they did not arise from a legitimate governmental mandate?
  3. What downsides can you imagine? Assuming the process was sometimes abused, what do you think the main forms of abuse would have been?
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