An Abundance of Californias

The desire to maintain something resembling a coherent and somewhat chronological narrative has led me to neglect certain important aspects of the early 1850s. The messiness of the past, like the messiness of the present, requires occasional diversions from a strict chronology to avoid a constant morass of shifting subjects organized only by dates. That diversions in turn require occasional correctives to add more nuance. In the early part of the decade, slavery achieved a new prominence in the national dialog but it did not come alone. Rather, just as in our times, large issues have a kind of intellectual stickiness. They bring with them constellations of other issues and measures that serve and feed into larger goals.

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Southern radicals in the very early 1850s responded to the Armistice of 1850 with a scheme to secede that ultimately failed before the forces of Southern Unionism and the promises of the new Fugitive Slave Law. While that failure may have dampened some passions, the facts of the Armistice remained law and however much Southerners could live with them, they could also seek changes which would realign circumstances in their favor. They could wash away the indignity of losing sectional parity in the Senate for California’s sake by sawing a new slave state off its southern end. Such proposals came up during the debates over the Mexican Cession’s future almost immediately. Mississippi’s Henry S. Foote tried to sweeten the deal for the North by drawing a line a bit to the south of the proposed extension of the Missouri Compromise line, ceding a bit of potential slave territory for surety on the rest.

Foote’s proposal did not win out, but the idea of partitioning California did not vanish there. Thanks to the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Bay and surrounding regions had a much higher population than Southern California. Completely aside questions of slavery, which certainly animated most outside interest in a California partition, the more rural, more Hispanic southern end of the state felt ill-served by the more urban, whiter San Francisco area. So in 1854 the California Assembly voted to give Southern California, and Northern California with a similar set of complains, their own states of Colorado and Shasta, respectively. The legislature’s session expired before the California Senate voted on the measure. The idea did not go away, however, and the state laid a proposal before the Congress to split off the section of California south of the 36th parallel off as, again, the state of Colorado.

I can’t say what Congress might have done with the proposal. A state voting to dismember itself seems uncontroversial and Texas had frequently been raised as a candidate for that in the name of producing more slave states. But of course a Southern California Colorado might vote to bring in slavery. Certainly its Southern advocates wanted just that and various Northern interests would oppose it on the same basis. The partition of California might have brought about a new sectional crisis, except that California passed the proposal in 1859. By the time it reached Washington the nation stood on a much higher precipice.

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