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CALIFORNIA'S HOUSE DIVIDED Ward M. McAfee California history is often thought of as local history, the story of one relatively isolated western state. Yet geographically alone, the state suggests something more grand. Indeed, if placed along the eastern seaboard , California would stretch from the northern border of Pennsylvania to Savannah, Georgia. When regarded in this way, California represents something more akin to a region than merely a single state. Similar to Texas, California was expected to divide eventually into a number of states by many of those who admitted her into the Union in 1850.' Yet over a century and a third later, the golden state remains intact. Outside of the state, few remember that California came close to dividing on the eve of the Civil War. In fact, the division attempt of 1859 was the nearest the state has ever come to dismemberment. A bill to place the issue of state division before the voters of southern California passed both houses of the state legislature in 1859.2 Likewise, in that year the vote in southern California was overwhelmingly in favor of organizing the southern counties into a separate territory. The matter was sent to Congress for final approval and was shelved due to the more pressing business of secession and civil war. Historians have long debated the significance of this footnote of American history. The first several generations of the state's historians emphasized that Southern desires to expand the institution of slavery fueled the state division movement of the 1850s. Hubert Howe Bancroft, Theodore H. Hittell, and James M. Guinn all stated this interpretation with a note of certainty embellished with righteous indignation concerning the slave power conspiracy. Writing in the 1890s and in the first de1 James Buchanan to Mr. King, May 13, 1850, in John Bassett Moore, ed., The Works of James Buchanan, Comprising His Speeches, State Papers, andPrivate Correspondence, 12 vols. (New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1960), 8:384-85. 2 Statutes of California, 10th Session (Sacramento: State Printer, 1859), 310-11. Civil War History, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, ß 1987 by The Kent State University Press 116CIVIL WAR HISTORY cade of this century, these historians lived in an age when the triumph of the Union several decades before was deeply appreciated. Reviewing this episode, they recalled for their readers the South's craving for undeserved dominance in the nation, a lust that became intolerable in the later 1850s. Despite California's success at being admitted to the Union without the blemish of slavery, these authors noted, the South never ceased to conspire to divide the state, guiding the southern portion to become a territory which would thereupon receive the stigma of slavery . Given the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, the attempt to convert southern California into the "Territory of Colorado" two years later was seen as a transparent move of the slave power. Mexican Californians, led by Andrés Pico of Los Angeles, were portrayed as used by the Southern conspirators to front the movement.3 This interpretation received no effective challenge until 1914, when William Henry Ellison stressed that slavery had little or nothing to do with the state-division movement of the 1850s. He wrote that state taxation policies which severely discriminated against large landowners spurred the effort. While most of the state's wealth at that time derived from the mining districts of northern California, per capita taxes there were slight. However, in southern California, large landowners, primarily of Mexican descent, were forced annually to sell portions of their holdings to pay state taxes. Ellison claimed that the movement for state division was designed to relieve southern Californians of this burden by removing their lands from state control.4 Near the end of his professional career, Ellison republished his findings in his well-received A Self-Governing Dominion, California, 1848-1860 (1950), in which he stated: "In California . . . ,there was no indication that the division movement there was connected in any way with the slavery question." Though this latter interpretation has become the one generally favored in our own time, it has fundamental problems. Ellison never explained why a state legislature prejudiced both against large...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 115-130
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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