Governor # 7, Downey

After only five days as lieutenant governor, Irish-born John Gately Downey succeeded Milton Latham, who resigned the governor’s office to accept appointment as a U.S. Senator. Until the 21st century, Downey was the only California governor who was not born in the United States. He was also the state’s first governor from Southern California. Born in central Ireland in 1827, he was educated there before emigrating to the United States with his family in 1842. Dwindling family finances forced him to leave school in Charles County, Maryland, at 16. He apprenticed as an apothecary in Washington, D.C. until 1842, then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a druggist. The California Gold Rush brought him West in 1849; he briefly prospected in Grass Valley before finding a job at a San Francisco drug store. Relocating to Los Angeles, in 1852 he married the daughter of a prominent family, and was elected to one-year terms on the Los Angeles Common Council that year and again in 1856. He also served one term as a member of the California State Assembly before being elected lieutenant governor in 1859. Downey, like his predecessor Latham, was a Lecompton (proslavery) Democrat.  His veto of the “bulkhead” bill, which would have allowed ownership of San Francisco’s waterfront by a monopoly, made Downey a hero and marked the peak of his popularity. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Downey pledged support to the Union, although—according to historian Theodore H. Hittell—his  support was somewhat vague, and after the Democratic Party splintered into two factions he was unable to recapture his party’s nomination. When his term expired he returned to Southern California, where he helped co-found Farmers and Merchants Bank, and joined with others in laying the groundwork for the University of Southern California. The city of Downey, created in the 1870s, is named for him. John Downey died in his Los Angeles home in 1894.


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