David Colbreth Broderick was born in Washington D.C. on February 4, 1820. His father was an Irish stone mason who had come to the United States to work on the construction of the Capitol building. He is said to have carved the marble pillars on the east face of the building. After stone work on the Capitol was finished the family moved to New York City. David was a teenager when his father died and he went to work as a stone mason to help support his mother, his younger brother, and himself. The family was poor, life was hard, and David became skilled in fighting with his fists. His social life revolved around his membership in a volunteer fire company - Howard Engine Company #24. He became foreman of the company and attracted the attention of a patron who set him up as bartender of a saloon named the "Subterranean.
Broderick's saloon was named after a radical newspaper of the same name. The editor of the paper was Mike Walsh, the paramour of Kate Ridgeley who operated a bordello in the neighborhood. Broderick and Walsh became good friends and Broderick adopted much of his political philosophy from Walsh. Walsh believed that the source of crime and misery in the world was rooted in the inequality of society. Honest working people were being cheated by dishonest capitalists. Walsh thought that most workers were not much better off than slaves. Broderick joined the Democratic Party and slowly worked his way up until eventually Tammany Hall agreed to offer him as a candidate for Congress in 1846. Broderick angered the party leaders by being too forward during a reception for newly elected James K. Polk, President of the United States. Tammany Hall withdrew its support and Broderick was not elected to Congress.
Broderick's mother and his younger brother both died about the same time that he lost the favor of Tammany Hall. Although he had no interest in the mines he went to California in 1849 in search of a political career in the Democratic party. He traveled by ship from New York to Chagres and crossed by mule to Panama City where he was stranded for a month before he could get on a ship to San Francisco. In San Francisco he reestablished an earlier acquaintanceship with Jonathan Stevenson, the leader of the now disbanded New York Regiment which had been formed in New York to participate in the Mexican War. Stevenson, Broderick and Frederick Kohler set up a private mint in San Francisco to help meet the need for coins in California. They produced five and ten dollar gold pieces which had respectively four and eight dollars worth of gold in them. It was a very profitable business and he invested his proceeds in San Francisco real estate.
Soon after arriving in the city, Broderick joined a volunteer fire company and quickly rose to captain it. San Francisco had a lot of fires and popular opinion assumed that the cause of the fires were thieves and hoodlums. Broderick concluded that although the arsonists might be hoodlums they appeared to be acting on the orders of the merchants of the city. As he saw it the major fires always happened when the warehouses of the city were overstocked and prices were depressed. After a fire destroyed the excess merchandise, prices skyrocketed, profits shot up, and the underclass was blamed. He also saw the vigilantism that occasionally swept through San Francisco as part of the process by which the economic elite of the city maintained their control. This explanation fit his basic belief that capitalists were taking advantage of the working man.
Broderick distinguished himself in fighting the Christmas fire of 1849 and became the talk of the town. In January 1850 the incumbent State Senator from San Francisco was appointed Chief of the State Supreme Court. Broderick was elected to fill the vacancy by an overwhelming landslide of votes. At the end of that year the Governor of California, Peter Burnett resigned. The Lieutenant Governor, John McDougal, assumed the governorship thus vacating the position of President of the Senate. Broderick was elected president pro tempore in his place. Vigilantism reappeared in San Francisco in 1851 and on one occasion Broderick led a group of supporters into the heart of a large vigilante gathering to try and break it up by force. He failed and his opposition to the vigilantes attracted the ire of many of the city's leading citizens.