History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The Intricate Web of State and National Politics: 1850-1860

Image of Henry Clay arguing Compromise of 1850 in U.S. Congress

Henry Clay in the United States Senate, arguing for the Compromise of 1850 by R. Whitechurch (1855)

Below are the discussion guides for today

Discussion Goals - The Intricate Web of State and National Politics: 1850-1860
  1. To understand the evolution of political parties in the U.S. between 1789 and 1860
  2. To understand the intimate relationship between the state and national political arenas during the first decade of California's history as a state
  3. To examine California's first decade of political history.
  4. To follow "the uphill struggle" the U.S. Congress faced trying to get a transcontinental railroad with a western terminus in California.
  5. To trace the role of racism in early California's political history.
  6. To explore the economic and cultural Americanization of California
  7. To discuss the reasons that California was essential to the Union cause during the Civil War.

Goal #1: To understand the evolution of political parties in the U.S. between 1789 and 1860

In order to gain an understanding of the rough and tumble political world of California during its first decade as a state, we first have to understand the even rougher political turmoil that had been brewing in the nation's capital ever since the creation of the U.S. government. Using the handout charting the evolution of American political parties, get into 4 groups and take 10 minutes to get a basic understanding of the evolution of national party politics. Then, spend 10 minutes discussing the following:

Goal #2: To understand the intimate relationship between the state and national political arenas during the first decade of California's history as a state

California's intimate ties to national politics during the first decade as a new state, can be viewed through the battle of two men - David Broderick and Willilam Gwin. In 1849, both men landed in San Francisco. Both were Democrats and both had huge ambitions for a political career in the newest colony of the United States - California. Both favored making California a state, and both wanted to become one of the state's first United States Senators. So who were these men?

Photograph of William M. Gwin, California Senator 1850

Both of these members of the Democratic Party were also representatives to California's first constitutional convention. And this is where they entered into a huge animosity that would eventually cost Broderick his life.

Gwin and John C. Fremont became the first two U.S. Senators. They drew straws for who would get the longer, 6-year term and who would get the shorter term that would actually expire in March 1850 forcing that Senator to run for re-election. Gwin got the longer and Fremont drew the shorter. In January, 1850, the two men left for the nation's capital with a copy of California's first constitution - a constitution in which California was requesting admission as a free state.

When Fremont and Gwin arrived in Washington, D.C., the 31st Congress had been in session for almost a month. In 1850, this Congress was mired in a mess:

Into this mess stepped the issue of California statehood - would Congress approve its admission as a free state? Southern senators spent much of December 1849 arguing why California should not be admitted as a free state. Ineed, they argued for 11 months about the admission of California. Among their arguments were the following:

But some congressmen went further as shown by these various proposals:

Map of U.S. territory 1850Into this pitched battled stepped Henry Clay, the Whig Senator from Kentucky who brokered what became known as the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise was actually a package of five bills that addressed the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War - including California.

Now, let's get back to California where the legislature was also bogged down in controversy. In March, Fremont's term was up and the battle for his senatorial seat raged in Sacramento. There were 16 Chivs in the legislature who were determined to keep the anti-slavery Fremont from being re-elected and committed to sending two proslavery advocates in the U.S. Senate. Even though California was a slave state, they were adamant that the balance in the U.S. Senate remain proslavery. After 142 ballots, no candidate received a majority. Fremont lost his seat and the legislature decided to wait a year before trying again. In the meantime, Gwin was the only U.S. senator.

During that year, Gwin succeeded in getting complete control over federal patronage in California - the postal service, the courts, San Francisco Customs House, the Indian office, the land office, and other lesser federal positions.

Photo of John B. Weller, U.S. Senator from California and later GovernorIn January 1852, the California legislature elected John B. Weller - a stalwart Chiv and Gwin supporter who is shown to the left - as the second senator. The two California senators, then, would not pose a threat to southern dominance in the U.S. Senate. In 1855, however, Gwin failed to be re-elected after a successful campaign launched by Broderick and his antislavery forces. Again, no majority was reached and the position lay vacant until 1857 when Weller's seat was up for re-election. Into this debate stepped David Broderick who campaigned for and won the six-year term. Gwin, desperate for the second seat, brokered a compromise with Broderick. In return for supporting Gwin for the seat, Gwin gave Broderick his control over all federal patronage in California. Gwin's appointment effectively destroyed the Chiv control over federal patronage and left many proslavery Democrats feeling that Gwin had sold out his friends for the sake of being elected.

Thus, the proslavery forces of Gwin and antislavery forces of Broderick continued to do battle in California. During the 1859 state election campaign, the antagonism deepened as Sketch of David Broderick and  Chief Justice David Terry Duel, 1859California Chief Justice David Terry - a major Gwin ally - denounced Broderick, claiming that he and his supporters were not true Democrats. Broderick angrily responded that Terry was a dishonest judge and a "miserable wretch." In response, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel.

The two men met on September 13, 1859 at Lake Merced south of San Francisco. Broderick's pistol prematurely discharged and Terry then aimed and fired into Broderick's chest. Broderick's death made him an immediate martyr to the antislavery cause - another of many actions across the nation that led to the Civil War. After Terry was acquitted of the crime, he served in the Confederate Army. In 1889, Terry was gunned down after threatening the life of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field.

Goal #3: To examine California's first decade of political history

From the beginning of its history, California was plagued by several different types of political turmoil: divisions among the Democrats; the slow growth of the Republican Party; the rise of the Know Nothings; and the divisions between the north and south parts of the state.

Divisions among the Democrats. As already mentioned, the party was divided between anti-slavery forces, largely led by Broderick, and the pro-slavery, Chiv forces largely led by Gwin.

Slow growth of the Republican party. At the same time that the Republican Party was growing at the national level, it did not get a strong foot in the door of California. In the 1856 election when the Republicans captured so many offices in the other free states, they barely polled 19 percent. Their primary strength were in just two towns - San Francisco and Sacramento - largely because the party’s platform - free soil, free men - appealed to northern entrepreneurs. Further, the Republicans were victimized by the Chivs who called the Republican candidates for state and federal races “nigger-loving abolitionists” or “black republicans."

The rise of the Know Nothings. After 1854, Know Nothings Party bannerthe Know Nothings gained quite a bit of strength in California where there was plenty of anti-foreigner ammunition due to the large influx of Chinese and Irish Catholics. They focused more on the “heathen Chinese” from 1855 forward. In 1854, the Know-Nothings elected their gubanatorial candidate, J. Neely Johnson, as well as won 56 of the 90 assembly seats and 17 of the 33 senate seats - giving them almost a 3-to-1 majority in the assembly and a one-vote edge in the Senate. However, much like the national party, it collapsed in the fall 1856 elections - with Democrats getting control.

Southern and Northern divisions. Many Southerners wanted to divide California into two states - one slave and one free. And many of the Chivs supported this cause. But the first real internal effort to divide the state did not occur until 1859 under the leadership of Andres Pico, a 48-year-old assemblyman from Los Angeles - the southern part of the state.

In September, the voters passed the bill by a vote of 3 to 1. In January 1860, the bill went to Congress. Congress, however, was in no mood to dismember a state. Thus, "The Pico bill was…dead on arrival." (Richards:225)

So, throughout the decade, the Democrats stayed in power - although both wings of the party fought each other for predominance. The Know-Nothings gained strength which quickly waned. However, in 1860, California voted for the Republican candidate for president - Abraham Lincoln.

And what were the primary legislative accomplishments of the Democrats during the first decade of California statehood?

So, let’s turn the discussion to the next issue that plunged California state politics into the national limelight – the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Goal #4: To follow "the uphill struggle" the U.S. Congress faced trying to get a transcontinental railroad with a western terminus in California

This part of the story begins with the desire of many southerners who still hoped to expand slavery into the west by establishing a slaveholding colony in southern California that would produce rice, cotton, and sugar. Map of proposed route of Transcontinental Railroad, southern routeTo accomplish this, some southerners began to support the idea for a transcontinental railroad running through the southern states and into southern California. What followed was a major battle in the U.S. Congress over the route - a northern or southern route.

Goal #5: To trace the role of racism in early California's political history

By the time the first Americans began migrating to California, it was already diverse. Its population consisted of Spanish of both European and Mexican descent, Spanish of mixed blood, Mexicans, Mexicans of mixed blood, and many different Indian peoples. Within several years after the discovery of gold, California had a diverse population that represented nearly every major nation and earth and had quickly become a unique, cosmopolitan society characterized by national and ethnic diversity, religious diversity, and racial diversity.

In California, racism was reinforced via a series of laws, each of which adversely affected the non-white populations of California

1849 -California's constitution denied Indians the right to vote: "Provided, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to prevent the Legislature, by a two thirds concurrent vote, from admitting to the right of suffrage, Indians or the descendants of Indians, in such special cases as such a proportion of the legislative body may deem just and proper." Indians could not vote in California until the Federal Citizenship Act was passed in 1924.

1850 - An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. California's first legislature passed this act which facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating at least a generation of children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures (1850 to 1865), and indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites. The act also stated that Indians - as well as Mexicans and blacks - could not testify in court against a white person. (More on this topic with the discussion: Americanization and the California Indians.)

Foreign Miners' Tax. Cartoon of 1850 California Foreign Miners TaxOne of the first laws passed by the state legislature imposesd a $20 per month fee on all noncitizen miners. The tax was too high for most to pay, miners of European origin were rarely asked to pay, and in most mining areas, Mexicans were ordered to pay the tax or were driven from the mines. The law was repealed in 1851, but by then, most Mexicans had been permanently driven from the mines.

1851 and 1852 - The legislature authorized payment of $1,100,000 for the "suppression of Indian hostilities".

1852 - California's Fugitive Slave Law. The law claimed that any slave who had come to California prior to statehood was a fugitive under the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act. Anyone who aided a runaway or enabled a slave owner to live in California with a slave was subject to a heavy fine. The law lapsed in 1855.

1855 - Act to Punish Vagrants, Vagabonds, and Dangerous and Suspicious Persons. The Act provided that "All persons except Digger Indians, who have no visible means of living, who in ten days do not seek employment, nor labor when employment is offered to them, all healthy beggars, who travel with written statements of their misfortunes, all persons who roam about from place to place without any lawful business, all lewd and dissolute persons who live in and about houses of Ill-Fame; all common prostitutes and common drunkards may be committed to jail and sentenced to hard labor for such time as the Court, before whom they are convicted shall think proper, not exceeding ninety days."

1860 - Amendments to the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The California Legislature amended Sections Three and Seven of Act, thereby granting broad powers to county and district judges to execute articles of indenture of apprenticeship on behalf of Indians; providing that male Indian children under fourteen years could be indentured until they were twenty-five, and females under fourteen until they were twenty-one years old; and also providing that if they were over fourteen but under twenty, males were indentured until they were thirty, and females until they were twenty-five years. (More on this topic with the discussion: Americanization and the California Indians.)

Clearly, California was uniquely diverse, but equality did not come with such diversity. The native Indian population and blacks were denied the vote; Indians were bought, sold, and indentured under legal provisions; the Mexican population was defrauded of its land. On the other hand, white Californians not only gained great equality in the state, but were quickly Americanized.

Goal #6: To explore the economic and cultural Americanization of California

Economic endeavors. While gold mining initially dominated the economic environment, farming and land speculation gradually became a vibrant part of California's economy.

Cultural Changes. The transformation of California culture from Mexican to American was first and most dramatically achieved in San Francisco. San Francisco - or Yerba Buena - was little more than a mud flat in 1848. Yet a visitor in 1856 wrote home: "That a city of the respectability of San Francisco could be raised in the short space of five or six years, appears incredible. Possessing the appearance of an old city of a century, San Francisco Harbor in 1851it conveys to the mind the idea of being within a day's journey of the Emporium of the nation." The photo is of Telegraph Hill in 1856.

When the miners arrived in 1949, they found abandoned ships on the shoreline that provided shelter, warehouses, offices, hotels, and a jail. As the ships sank or burned, debris covered them to provide more land for sale.

Elite neighborhoods emerged in the mid-1850s on Rincon Hill and at South Park. Theaters and restaurants abounded. Two weekly newspapers merged in 1849 to become the popular Daily Alta California. By the mid-1860s, four literary journals operated. Popular journalists contributed to both newspapers and journals, Mark Twain and Bret Harte among them.

By 1860, San Francisco had a population of 57,000 and it was ranked 15th among American cities and first among those west of the Mississippi River.

To get a better picture of how the economy and culture of a community was totally shaped by the Gold Rush, let's take a look at the growth of the town of Weaverville in Trinity County on Highway 299.

1828 - The first Euro-American contact in the region occurred when Jedediah Smith's expedition blazed a trail to Southern Oregon.

1844 - Pearson B. Reading was the first white person to move to the area. After receiving a Mexican land grant, he built a house, ran cattle, planted fruit trees, and grew the first grapevines Photo of Weavervillenorth of Sacramento.

1848 - Reading mined the Trinity River at what is now Readings Bar. His return route established what is now known as the Shasta-Weaverville road. Reading traveled from the Weaverville basin up Rush Creek to the Lewiston area, over the Trinity Mountains, then down to the town that became known as Shasta. News of Reading's success drew miners to the remote diggings in Trinity County.

1850 - Sacramento newspapers publicized the diggings along Weaver Creek and miners rushed to the area. The town and creek were named for a prospector named either John or George Weaver who is credited with building the first cabin in the basin.

1851 - Weaverville consisted of one round tent and four log cabins.

1852 - A German immigrant, Federick Walter, established the Pacific Brewery (the building still exists on Highway 299). This was the beginning of entreprenuerial growth - artisans, professionals, clergymen, and other permanent settlers arrived.

1853 - The first of several fires burned nearly half the town. In 1855, another fire burned 29 houses and only two months later, in December, a third fire destroyed many more buildings. The damage would have been greater, but townspeople had begun to construct buildings with brick.

A Chinese temple, the "Joss House," was built by the city's first Chinese residents. The structure was destroyed by fire in 1869 and rebuilt in 1874. This is the oldest continually used Chinese temple in California and a State Historic Landmark.

1854 - By 1854, the Chinese had established a Chinatown with four stores, four gambling saloons, and a restaurant. Their a population in the area totaled about 1000.

1855 - Weaverville was incorporated as a city and elected its first municipal officers.

1857 - An urban American society had been created out of the wilderness. Weaverville had churches, schools, a water system, a fire company, two hospitals, two newspapers, brick business buildings, a basic town plan, and German, Jewish, and Chinese ethnic associations.

Later in the year, the editor of the Trinity Journal wrote "It is pleasant to note the change in the state of society in this place which a few years have effected. Formerly every other house was a gambling saloon, or something equally as bad. Fatal quarrels were of daily and nightly occurence; drunken men paraded in the streets; blasphemy was heard on every side, and law and order were things heard of but never seen. Now gambling is abolished; a very drunk person is a curiosity; deadly assaults are of rare occurence. Ladies now promenade our streets and the air resounds with the innocent prattle of little children."

1859 - Twenty brick buildings had been built in Weaverville, dramatically decreasing the fear of fire.

1862 - Weaverville visitor William H. Brewer wrote the following about the area: "There are twenty-eight saloons and Photograph of mining in Weavervilleliquor holes in the place, and gambling and fighting are favorite pastimes ... Along the whole length of the creek, as far as one could see, on the banks of the creek, in the ravines, in the middle of the principal and only street in the town, and even inside some of the houses, were parties of miners, numbering from three or four to a dozen, all hard at work, some laying into it with picks ... while others were working pumps or baling water out of the holes with buckets. There was continual noise and clatter, as mud, dirt, stones, and water were thrown about in all directions; and the men, dressed in ragged clothes and big boots, wielding picks and shovels, and rolling big rocks about, were all working as if for their lives, going into it with a will, and a degree of energy, not usually seen among laboring men ..."

1870 - Weaverville was producing $1.5 million worth of gold annually. Later in the year, hydraulic mining was introduced to the area, allowing miners to expand operations to high benches previously inaccessible or unprofitable due to their distance from water. The natural environment of the area dramatically changed in the following years.

1870s - By the 1870s, whie miners considered the ground to be worked out and abandoned their claims. Chinese miners moved into these supposedly worked-out areas, and Weaverville became one of their most important strongholds in California.

1872 - A group of local miners formed the Weaverville Ditch and Hydraulic Mining Company which brought hydraulic mining to the area. In 1892, it was purchased by Baron de La Grange and Photograph of hydraulic mining at La Grange Minebecame known thereafter as the La Grange Mine. During its lifetime, over $3.5 million dollars of gold was extracted from the mine, which became the largest hydraulic mine in the state. La Grange covered more than 3,000 acres, 3,000 feet of sluice boxes, and 27 miles of ditches and flumes. La Grange also hosted a sawmill, ice house, and electrical plant. The site is now a California Historical Landmark.

1920s - Beginning in the 1920s, miners used large dredging machines, some of which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Larger companies from outside Trinity County financed the operation of these machines, and it was the local men that were hired to work the dredges.

1929 - Gold productionPhotograph of dredging around Weaverville in Weaverville reached its lowest point since 1849. Agriculture and logging dominated the economy of Trinity County through the 1920s.

21st Century - Logging, mining, boating and fishing all contribute to the local economy. Further, recreation and tourism have more economic influence than mining.


Goal #7: To discuss the reasons that California was essential to the Union cause during the Civil War

As the 1860 Presidential election continued to threaten to tear the nation apart, the status of California in case of a Civil War was uncertain.

Conclusions - The Intricate Web of State and National Politics: 1850-1860

  1. Within several years after the discovery of gold, California had a diverse population that represented nearly every major nation and earth and had quickly become a unique, cosmopolitan society.
  2. While the Democratic Party dominated California politics during the decade, it was deeply divided along similar lines as the national Democratic Party - between proslavery, pro-southerners and Free Soilers, pro-northerners.
  3. California's admission to the United States sparked a bitter sectional debate in the U.S. Congress - a debate that ended in the Compromise of 1850.
  4. The first of many efforts to divide California into two states began during this era.
  5. The early national debate about building a transcontinental railroad was tied to creating a transportation route linking the east coast with California.
  6. California was uniquely diverse, but equality did not come with such diversity. The native Indian population and blacks were denied the vote,; Indians were bought, sold, and indentured under legal provisions; the Mexican population was defrauded of its land.
  7. By 1860, California had become thoroughly Americanized, as well as bound to the Union at the beginning of the Civil War.