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Related Museum Links Discovery of Gold in California, by Gen. John Sutter

Military Governor Mason's Report on the Discovery of Gold

Dramatic Impact of the Gold Discovery, by Theo. H. Hittell

The Discovery – as Viewed in New York and London

Steamer Days in San Francisco

How California Came to be Admitted.

by Rockwell D. Hunt, Ph. D

The question of slavery extension made California an integral part of the territory of the United States; the birth, a half-century ago, of the free State of California, inflicted a mortal wound upon the enemy of human freedom.

It had long been an admitted principle in American politics that free states could be admitted only when accompanied by slave states. Thus, from almost the beginning of the century, there had been maintained in the National Senate an equality of state representation between North and South. After the admission of Texas in 1845 there were twenty-eight states, in fifteen of which slavery existed, but the admission of Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848 restored the numerical equality between free and slave states. In the meantime California was rapidly developing, and, complaining at the absence of civil organization, she clamored more and more loudly for organized government. What disposition was to be made of California was a question that possessed an absorbing interest. The acquisition of the vast province of California was a chief act in the drama of our war with Mexico, an act whose national and political import was fraught with profound significance. The Mexican war, far from being the result of a sudden movement, had been more or less distinctly anticipated, at least since the declaration of independence of Texas in 1836. California, toward which the United States had cast many a covetous glance since the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition, came early to be definitely considered on of the richest prizes to be won by the conflict with Mexico, as evidenced by Commodore Jones’ premature conquest of Monterey in 1842, by the Frémont expeditions, which were largely the result of Senator [Thomas] Benton’s interest in the West, and by General Kearny’s expedition to New Mexico and California.

The friends of slavery extension viewed with real alarm the rapidly growing population and the marvelously expanding industry of their North. Their alarm was fast being transformed into desperation as it became clearer and clearer from a mere glance at the map that the vast Louisiana purchase and the Oregon country offered indefinite fields for freedom, but furnished scanty hope for slavery. Besides, the Missouri compromise looked most forbidding. The Southern leaders felt, and felt deeply, that something drastic must be done, for they never would admit the predominance of the North. “What, acknowledge inferiority!” At all hazards, therefore, the South, perceiving the North rapidly outstripping her in population, yet trained for generations to a feeling of superiority and accustomed to a habit of command, determined to see slavery not only protected where already existing, but to perpetuate it as a living, growing power. How tremendous a mistake it was to identify the development of the South with the presence of human slavery and to suppose her very existence bound up with the extension of the “peculiar institution” is just coming to be perceived, but cannot be fully understood until another half century of freedom and reconstruction shall have left its benign influences of progress and light.

The world knows how the actuating causes in California’s conquest by the United States became the rock of offense upon which our Union well nigh split. By virtue of the abolition of slavery throughout the republic of Mexico in 1829 the province of California fell into the possession of the United States with no taint of that institution, and the express prohibitive law was an inherent obstacle at the very threshold of the desire of the South. Moreover, grave difficulties must need to be settled before slavery could be introduced into California. If the Missouri compromise were to be made applicable to the newly acquired territory the spoils of the Mexican war must at least be divided on the parallel of 36 degrees 30 minutes.

While the national issue was yet seeking clear definition the question of slavery in California settled itself with astonishing rapidity by sheer force of local conditions that were wholly without precedent. It was observed that neither the soil, nor the climate, nor the products of any portion of California were adapted to slave labor, and that property in slaves would be utterly insecure here. The contemporaneous press reflects the views of the more intelligent Americans in California. The Californian of March 15, 1848, says:

“We entertain several reasons why slavery should not be introduced here. First, it is wrong for it to exist anywhere. Second, not a single instance of precedence exists at present in the shape of physical bondage of our fellow men. Third, there is no excuse whatever for its introduction into this country (by virtue of climate or physical conditions). Fourth, Negroes have equal rights to life, liberty, health and happiness with the whites. Fifth, it is every individual’s duty, to self and to society, to be occupied in useful employment sufficient to gain self-support. Sixth, it would be the greatest calamity that the power of the United States could inflict upon California. Seventh, we desire only a white population in California. Eighth, we left the slave states because we did not like to bring up a family in a miserable, can’t-help-one’s-self condition. Ninth, in conclusion we dearly love the ‘Union,’ but declare our positive preference for an independent condition of California to the establishment of any degree of slavery, or even the importation of free blacks.”

Ten days later the other local journal, The California Star, said editorially:

“While we sincerely entertain these views, and value the union with the United States as highly as we should, the simple recognition of slavery here would be looked upon as a greater misfortune to the territory than though California had remained in its former state, or were at the present crisis, abandoned to its fate. * * We believe, though slavery could not be generally introduced, that its recognition would blast the prospects of the country. It would make it disreputable for the white man to labor for his bread, and it would thus drive off to other homes the only class of emigrants California wishes to see, the sober and industrious middle-class of society. We would, therefore, on the part of 90 per cent of the population of this country, most solemnly protest against the introducing of this blight upon the prosperity of the home of our adoption. We should look upon it as an unnecessary moral, intellectual and social curse to ourselves and posterity.”

As soon as the effect of the discovery of gold began to be felt, when citizens of all ranks became diggers for the yellow metal, the introduction of slaves would have been even more vigorously opposed, and in truth, would have been plainly intolerable. The editor of the Alta California, February 22, 1849, thus states the case:

“The majority—four-fifths, we believe—of the inhabitants of California are opposed to slavery. They believe it to be an evil and a wrong * * and while they would rigidly and faithfully protect the vested rights of the South, they deem it a high moral duty to prevent its extension and aid its extinction by every honorable means.”

Walter Colton had a clear perception of the exact situation when, in the Constitutional Convention at Monterey, he affirmed:

“The causes which exclude slavery from California lie within a nutshell. All there are diggers, and free white diggers won’t dig with slaves. They know they must dig themselves; they have come out here for that purpose, and they won’t degrade their calling by associating it with slave labor. Self-preservation is the first law of nature. They have nothing to do with slavery in the abstract or as it exists in other communities * * they must themselves swing the pick, and they won’t swing it by the side of negro slaves. That is the upshot of the whole business.”

Alexander Buchner, in his Le Conquerant de la Californie, without hesitation affirms: “It was the gold of California that gave the fatal blow to the institution of slavery in the United States.”

photograph of Commodore StocktonBut the representatives of the South in national councils were by no means so ready to accept the inevitable and thereby to see their prize snatched from their hands, only to be used against themselves. The military rule of Commodore Stockton and of General Kearny was unwelcome to the Californians, who were not slow to express their desire for organized government. But Congress had been busy with the concerns of war, while the famous Wilmot proviso was crystallizing the forces of North and South. At that early stage, while war was yet in progress, mature plans for the permanent territorial organization of California could hardly be expected. Congress adjourned March 3, 1847, having made no provision for the new possession. This first failure was in no sense remarkable; but that our National Legislature should for a second and third time absolutely fail to meet the exigencies of the case, while the Californians, under Mason’s and Riley’s rule, were reiterating their demands for civil organization, growling ominously meanwhile, is an indication, not that California was being ignored, but that she had become a stupendous issue, a mighty problem, the though of whose solution struck terror to the heart of the South.

The war had ended, peace had been proclaimed, some solution must be reached. There was but one. The Constitutional Convention, which met at Monterey at the call of Acting Governor Riley, unanimously adopted the resolution that: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” While the unanimous vote for a free state by no means put an end the question of slavery in all its phases, it may easily be seen that the die had been cast—there could be no retreat. So profound was the national influence of this vital decision that Dr. Wiley was led to pronounce it the “pivot point with the slavery question in the United States” Our great commonwealth of the Pacific entering the Union as the sixteenth free State destroyed forever the equilibrium between the North and South.

U.S. Senator William GwinThe bitter debate in the Constitutional Convention on the question of California’s boundary, which came perilously near resulting in the overthrow of the work of the entire session, shows that at bottom it was the final struggle of the pro-slavery forces. It was secretly argued that by making the State very large, as was advocated by [U.S. Senator] Gwin, it would not be necessary to divide it by an east-and-west line, thus adding one state to the South. The present eastern boundary was carried by the narrowest circumstance.

The closing scenes of the convention, highly dramatic in themselves, were enacted on Saturday, October 13, 1849. Copies of California’s new Constitution being printed at the earliest possible moment, that document was quickly carried to every town and mining camp and ranch. Candidates for various offices took the field; political speeches began to multiply in the land, and in an incredibly short time events took on the aspect of an ordinary campaign.

November 13th, the day appointed for the general election, proved to be stormy, which accounts for the light vote polled. A fortnight before, Governor Riley had prophesied that the Constitution would be ratified by the almost unanimous vote of the qualified electors of the country. The forecast was safe, since, of a total vote of 12,785, only 811 were against the Constitution. For the office of Governor Peter H. Burnett received more than double the vote of his leading opponent, Winfield S. Sperwood, and in the contest for Lieutenant-Governor, John McDougal was successful over A. M. Winn, Edward Gilbert and George W. Wright were elected to represent California in the lower house of the Congress. Early the next month a Gubernatorial proclamation declared the Constitution to be “ordained and established as the Constitution of the State of California.”

Conformably to section 9 of the schedule to the Constitution the first Legislature assembled on December 15th for temporary organization in San Jose, the new seat of government. Of more significance, doubtless, was the fact that on the following Thursday, December 20, 1849, the State government of California was formally established. Governor-elect Burnett being installed with appropriate ceremonies, and Governor Riley laying down his authority.

While General Riley did not always succeed in maintaining perfect consistency in the discharge of his ill-defined duties as acting Governor of California, he unquestionably rendered services of the highest value alike to commonwealth and Nation in perfecting the State organization and bringing, as it were, this new member to the very threshold of the Union. If at times he was somewhat overcautious and withal a strict constructionist as to his own instructions from Washington, we must commend the firmness of his administration, the statesmanlike tact he displayed in leading on the people and his clearly evinced patriotism.

Whatever legal objections might be raised against putting into operation a State Government before admission into the Union and in anticipation of Congressional approval, General Riley had with good reason judged “that these objections must yield to the obvious necessities of the case; for the powers of the existing government were too limited and its organization too imperfect to provide for the wants of a country so peculiarly situated, and of a population which is augmenting with such unprecedented rapidity.” California, though now a fully constituted State so far as local governmental machinery was concerned, yet remained outside the Union.

New states are regularly formed by enabling acts of Congress out of territories of the United States, organized under its authority or acquired in an organized condition from foreign states. It is well known that previous to the Constitutional Convention at Monterey, California was not an organized Territory of the United States, also that the convention did not meet at the free instance of the people, but at the call of a de facto Governor. It is therefore clear that the organization of the California State Government was wholly without exact precedent. This fact has been perceived by Mr. Gwin, who thus stated the case, in part, on the floor of the convention:

“Our situation, sir, is entirely different from that of any other State ever admitted into the Union. * * We have determined by the unanimous vote of this body, that as soon as our constitution is ratified by the people, this Government shall go into operation. We elect our Governor, and all the subordinate officers of the State; we are a State to all intents and purposes. Being a State we send our Senators and Representatives to the Congress of the United States, not as a State going out of a territorial into State Government, but as a State that has sprung full-grown into existence; and when we officially notify the Congress of the United States that we are a State, we do it through our duly elected Representatives, who appear there to demand admission into the Union.”

john fremontAlmost immediately upon the organization of the first State Legislature, John C. Frémont and W.M. Gwin were duly elected to the United States Senate; these, together with Representatives Gilbert and Wright, set out in January, 1850, for Washington; and in March they laid before the two Houses certified copies of the new Constitution and their own credentials, and in a long memorial, comprising a concise history of the Golden State, requested, “in the name of the people of California, the admission of the State of California into the American Union.”

In the meantime the question of the admission had risen to supreme interest and importance in national councils. Southern leaders were almost beside themselves at the imminent prospect of losing the richest country of the Mexican cession. The excitement, which had been increasing with every day of added debate, was still further intensified by the arrival of the California Representatives. Their presence in Washington was regarded by many prominent men of both sections as unwarrantable, but more particularly was it deemed a serious affront to the pride of the South.

The main question, in itself presenting the gravest difficulties, was greatly complicated by numerous other issues, which need not be reviewed here. The passions of excited men were being aroused to such an extend that ominous conflict, if not sanguinary strife, seemed inevitable, when Henry Clay, the great pacificator, reached the determination to effect a compromise.

The world is familiar with the result. The omnibus bill, in its integrity, failed to pass, but the leading measures embodied by that remarkable composition were one by one passed as separate acts. At last the question of California’s admission was nearing final settlement. Although Congress had repeatedly disappointed the people of California, and had caused delays that were unjust as well as vexatious, no sound argument based on facts and local conditions could not be adduced against admission. The stern logic of living facts was plainly against the South, as identified with slavery extension, even though the compromise of 1850 was seemingly victory for the slave power. The irrevocable exclusion of slavery from California was a rebuke at once extremely irritating and perilously prophetic. Calhoun, then almost in a dying condition, is reported to have invited Gwin to an interview, in the course of which that champion of the South solemnly predicted as an effect of California’s admission the “destruction of the equilibrium between the North and the South, a more intense agitation of the slavery question, a civil war and the destruction of the South.”

The California bill was finally passed in the house, September 7th by a vote of 150 to 56. The Senate concurred; two days later, September 9, 1850, it received the approval of the President and California was received into the sisterhood of states. Nine months had Congress been in session, and still many matters of real importance remained neglected.

Angry feelings were being engendered among Californians when the defeat of the omnibus bill gave probability of another of those troublesome delays. The limit of endurance was not far removed. One placing his ear to the ground might have heard grumbling utterances such as betoken approaching rebellion. The Bear Flag Republic was called to mind, and Bear Flag sentiments of independent existence for California were openly expressed. But one autumn day, when hope was almost gone, the strain was suddenly removed. To employ the words of a well-known writer; “Intelligence of the admission of California reached San Francisco on the morning of October 18th. The revulsion of feeling was instant and extreme; business was suspected, and the whole population congregated on Portsmouth square to congratulate each other.”

To-day a new generation celebrates the semi-centennial of that great event in a “greater” San Francisco, fortunate metropolis of New California, We of the new generation do well to pause if but for a brief season, with reverent gratitude to the Omnipotent Ruler of Nations for past blessing and present bounty, and to take a lesson from our revivified history and draw lasting inspiration from the honored pioneers who have safely bridged the years of the half century.

San Francisco Chronicle
September 9, 1900

Rockwell Dennis Hunt was a frequent contributor to southern California history journals, with special emphasis on the early history of the state. He was editor of the five-volume California and Californians (1926), as well as author of a string of California history books. Professor Hunt, born 1868, still wrote of California history as late as 1962 when he published Personal Sketches of California Pioneers I Have Known. He wrote this 1900 article, about the admission of California into the Union, while in his early 30’s.

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