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)

Introduction: Last week we focused on the Gold Rush and how it helped to propel California into statehood. We examined the men who comprised the constitutional convention as well as the five major debates that framed the conversation. We ended with a discussion that illustrated how these men and their debates largely ignored the political and economic rights of the Mexicans who lived in California prior to the arrival of Anglo-Americans. This week, we are going to take a closer look at those early years of policy making in California so that we can better understand the complex and intimate relationship between California politics and policymakers and national politics and policymakers during the first decade of California's history as a state.

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 explore the economic and cultural Americanization of California
  5. To discuss the reasons that California was essential to the Union cause during the Civil War.
  6. To trace the role of racism in early California's political history.

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 take about 10 minutes to get a basic understanding of the evolution of national party politics. Then, be parepared to discuss the following:


Cold Call: 7th cold call on required reading - Read Goals 2, 3, and 4 in the discussion guide for today at http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/Politics1850-1860.html

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? Photo of David Broderick

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 divide 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. Know Nothings Party bannerTheir 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, the 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 and the threat of a Civil War was looming. 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 problems of race brought about by the largest multi-cultural state in the Union.


Goal #4: 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, examine the growth of Weaverville in Humboldt County.

End of 9/22 discussion


Goal #5: 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.


Goal #6: To trace the role of racism in early California's political history

Cold Call: 8th Cold Call on required reading - Elison and Yogi, Ch. 1, "Staking Our Claim: The Law in California"

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 on 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.


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.