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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ SUNNY KAPLAN

Exhibit Brings Statehood Struggle to Life

September 12, 2000|SUNNY KAPLAN

The setting is grim--a 35- by 15-foot room with a murky tan tiled floor and concrete brick walls on the ninth floor of the National Archives building. But on display in this top-security room, known as "the vault," are documents blazing with the bright optimism of California's founders.

In honor of the state's 150th birthday last Saturday, archivists have pulled a selection of documents to illustrate the passionate debate that played out in the nation's capital over California's admission to the Union in 1850.

The documents are a testament that a century and a half ago, as now, Californians prided themselves on being industrious, enterprising and welcoming to people of all colors, races and religions. The state's founders argued passionately that California should be admitted as a "free" state and defeated a plan to admit Southern California as a separate state where slavery would be legal.

"The relation of master and slave has never existed in [California], and is there generally believed to be prohibited by Mexican law; consequently the original Californian population is utterly opposed to it," wrote a delegation from California in one 1850 document.

After a convention at which the state's Constitution was drafted, the group--including four prospective federal legislators--set sail that year from Monterey. Four months later, after rounding the tip of South America, they learned with "astonishment and sincere regret," according to the handwritten documents, that there was opposition. With 30 states represented in Washington, the 15 Southern states did not want another antislavery vote in Congress.

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"California would have been the 16th free state and the Southern congressmen didn't like that," said Michael Gillette, director of the Center for Legislative Archives. Gillette said it was the slavery issue that stalled the California statehood bill. Southerners wanted the right to migrate with their slaves, but Gillette said, "the further West, the less compatible land and people were to slaves."

California's four members-elect who witnessed the activities of the 31st Congress were so appalled that controversy had stalled their application for statehood that they wrote a 45-page plea for their cause.

The now aged, slightly torn pages of the petition outline the state's history, from its first 500 immigrants in the fall of 1845, to January 1850 when the state's population climbed to 107,000--an explosion attributable to the discovery of gold in early 1848.

The state was under military rule between 1847 and 1850, which drew "complaints that the military power was taxing the people, without allowing them a voice in the matter," the documents state.

Military authority was "a source of suspicion, disagreement, and discontent" to immigrants, and to the native Mexican Americans living in California who "were further influenced by the chagrin, hatred, and uncertainty which are sure to fill the breasts of a subjugated but courageous people," wrote the representatives.

Even under the heavy hand of the military, resilient Californians prospered. California "went on steadily increasing in population, wealth, industry and commercial and political importance," wrote the delegation, which included those who would become California's first senators, John Charles Fremont and William M. Gwin, and future congressmen George Washington Wright and Edward Gilbert.

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If the 31st Congress had had its way, a border making Southern California a separate, slave state would have been drawn--an idea that brought the most "vehement and angry" discussion at the state's constitutional convention, according to the documents.

"The people of the southern portion of California most certainly did not wish, and probably never would consent to, such a separation," founders wrote.

The California delegates got their way. California was not split in two, and Congress did not impose slavery on the state. On Sept. 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the bill for California's admission to the Union. The state's Declaration of Rights stated that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State."

Immigrants continued to pour out West to pursue the California dream, most crossing the Sierra Nevada into Northern California.

One group of emigrants from Iowa, Georgia, Missouri and New York, after forging a new and difficult desert route to reach the San Gabriel Valley, wrote Congress in 1850 to say the hardship had been worthwhile.

"We have reason to be thankful to a kind Providence who has preserved our lives and brought us in safety to . . . our Pacific Coast," the settlers wrote, "Whose fertile but poorly cultivated valleys we hope to see under the hand of American industry and enterprise protected by republican institutions."

Gillette of the Center for Legislative Archives hopes these writings personalize the past, so that Californians will see history through the eyes of its participants.

"You don't have the people, who didn't survive, but you have the writings, which are just as powerful and poignant as they were 150 years ago."

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