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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Doughface California                                            Shirley Wu

 

Leonard L. Richards received his degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Davis, and now teaches history at the University of Massachusetts. He won the 1970 American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award for Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian California, 1987 Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams, and 2001 second-place Lincoln Prize for The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860.

 

 

“The roots of this book go back to my childhood,” author Leonard L. Richards says in his book, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War.1 A good Californian, born and breed in California, and a graduate of its school system, he expresses genuine surprise when, in the process of researching other topics, he accidentally uncovers that not only did California’s statehood seriously exacerbate the relation between the antebellum North and South, many of his home state’s founding fathers actually sided with the latter in that long and painful conflict. Muses Richards: “Either such details had been omitted from the curriculum, or I simply had not been paying attention.” 2 He probably did paid attention. Most textbooks—if not all—never mention California’s ignominious role aside from that brief interlude in 1850 that exposes the fragileness of the North-South equilibrium. In Richards’s book, however, he links the events together, revealing California’s active role in the coming of and during the Civil War.

In the Prologue and Chapter 1, Richards begins his tale by an 1859 duel in which the state supreme court chief justice David S. Terry shot to death Senator David Broderick. Their conflict, however, merely embodied part of a larger struggle that originated in January of 1848, when a sawmill construction overseer first discovered gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. For the first couple months, the news was dismissed as nonsense by the two San Francisco weeklies, The Californian and The California Star. During this while, however, the Star’s entrepreneur owner Sam Brannon quietly invested store and hotel near the site, before coming back and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” 3. Instantaneously, San Francisco became a ghost town depleted of its male population. The military was especially hard hit, with so many sailors and soldiers deserting that a captain had to cook his own breakfast, “in a smoky kitchen, grinding coffee, toasting a herring, and peeling an onion.” 4 The news traveled faster by sea, reaching Latino America, Canton, and Sydney before reaching the East Coast, but once affirmed, it rescued the then President James K. Polk by justifying the Mexican War. Around the Cape Horn, through the Isthmus of Panama, or across the continent, young males flocked to the gold country in companies, braving the hazards presented along the way, and benefited the pockets of their shippers. Among those was Broderick, a young anti-Tammany Democrat. After amassing a fortune from minting coins, the Irish turned his eye to the real interest of his life—political power, and established a modified Tammany system in San Francisco that was to be his stronghold for many years.

Meanwhile, in the next two chapters, Broderick’s political nemesis William McKendree Gwin also arrived. A thorough southerner, the Mississippi Democrat long had his eye set on becoming an U.S. senator. Other slave owners fantasized about transporting their slaves from the barren soil of the east to toil the gold mines of the west. However, it soon became apparent that California was destined to be a free state. Local miners were hostile to slave competition and absentee owners, and they enforced their own codes. Very few Southerners were rash enough to bring their slaves, anyways; the few that did and ignored the local rules risked slaves running away and terrorism from their neighbors. Sensing the atmosphere, the delegation to the state’s constitutional convention unanimously outlawed slavery; for, as Gwin summed up: “In California, labor is respectable.” 5 The bachelors in the convention secured the passage of married women’s property rights, following New York’s liberal reform, in the hope of attracting wealthy women to the male dominated state. They were furthermore united against corporations. The debates were more heated at other issues. Gwin moved for a large California while lead by Morton M. McCarver racists worried that Southerners would dumped free blacks in their fledgling state, “the greatest calamity that could befall California.” 6 However, the Yuba representative William Shannon prevailed at last. The resulting constitution passed the election easily, though with a pathetically low turnout of 12% of the eligible voters.

In Chapters 4 through 6, the statehood application convulsed the national politics and catalyzed the sectional conflicts. From the beginning California belonged to the Democratic Party. An observer noted that Broderick’s machine made “very sure not to have a whig nominated to fill any office.” 7 John C. Fremont and Gwin became the state’s first senators. By then the Chivalry faction—a group of Southern politicians—was already existent in Californian politics and backing Gwin. Upon receiving the statehood application, the Thirty-first Congress was in an uproar. The fact that Gwin was a staunch southerner did not pacify those who feared losing the balance in the Senate or those who perceived the application as “Yankee fanatics[’]” plot to secure the Wilmot Proviso. 8 Horrified, the aged “Great Pacifier” Henry Clay drew up a compromise of eight resolutions, barely pushed through by the “Little Giant” Stephen A. Douglas. But Southern extremists were still fuming. Mississippi’s militant governor John A. Quitman condemned the compromise and even considered the “peaceable secession of the aggrieved states.” 9 Interest to overtake Cuba and annex it as one—or several—slave state soared, attempts to split California revived, and plan to construct a transcontinental railroad became part of the sectional struggle, each region vying to make the gold country its appendage. Consequently, James Gadsden negotiated to buy a strip of land from Mexico and Douglas passed the catastrophic Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In Chapters 7 and 8and the Epilogue, the focus shifted back home. The Chivs were gaining the upper hand in California. After Fremont’s term expired, a year went by before the state settled down on another Chiv, John B. Weller. During the interlude Gwin gained a monopoly in federal patronage, with which he secured his southern friends in offices. Between 1854-56, nativism forces under the Know-Nothing Party temporarily swept California, while the Republican Party, labeled as “nigger worshippers,” had difficulty to establish a base.10 When the Know-Nothing suddenly collapsed, its members joined the Chivs faction. But Broderick was by no means finished. In 1857 he easily triumphed over the divided Chivs and became a Senator. Promised the patronage power, he aided Gwin to be elected as well. However, once safely arrived Washington, Gwin quickly regained the upper hand: he was among his southern friends, including the doughface President James Buchanan; furthermore, he did not intend on keeping his promise. In the capital, the frustrated Broderick allied Douglas, who was now mired in the Kansas question in opposing Buchanan’s endorsement of the fraudulent pro-slavery Lecompton constitution. Scathingly, also, Broderick insulted and ridiculed James Henry Hammond’s “King cotton” and Northern white “mud-sill” arguments. 11 When Douglas backed down after a compromise, he angrily scolded him back to opposition. Returning home, he put up a valiant effort to elect the free-soilers of his camp, in vain. Aroused to duel Terry, his unfamiliarity with the weapon killed him. His death, widely regarded as an assassination, put the Chivs in the defensive. When Civil War broke out, some Chivs extremists contemplated secession and joined the Southern troops, but most Californians remained loyal, supplying gold to aid the Union effort. Terry eventually died in the hands of a bodyguard of a justice who owed Broderick, and things completed a full circle.

Richards thus argues that California was sympathetic to the Southern cause and a crucial catalyst for the Civil War. In fact its entire congressional delegation had supported the southern candidate, John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 election, even walking out with the seceding delegation during the Democratic nomination convention. He also reminds readers of its anemic votes to the Northern candidate Fremont, of its government staffed with firebrand Chivs, and of its two Chiv Senators. Despite California’s southern orientation, it still propelled some Southerners to desperate moves. Its gold and popularity further promoted sectional competition, thus leading to a bloody Kansas. It contributed senators, such as Gwin and Broderick, who fought on the sectional issues. During the war, although the cost of shipping prevented California’s male dominated population from seeing much action, it more than contributed by its exports of gold. General Ulysses S. Grant noted gratefully: “I do not know what we would do in this great national emergency were it not for the gold sent from California.” 12

From his most noted works, Richards appears fascinated by antebellum politics. Judging from the prime of his life, he may be a New Left historian. But that is a long time ago; in 2007, after thirty years and long after the youth reform movement has dissipated, when the previous hippies had matured and starting to retire, his thinking must have changed, to a less drastic approach. The book reflects a mellow adult with qualities encompassing several historiographies. He seems to consider the few that dominated politics the emphasis. Broderick, for example, “organized…intrigued…[and] bullied,” to have his way with the policies, expertly maneuvering to block his opponents’ proposals. 13 His political view leans toward the Progressive concept of competing forces, with just a tinge of New Left cynicism as illustrated in the downfalls, the defects, and the whole theme of reexamining an old conflict. Reflecting the present Neo-Consensus, however, Richards also stresses continuity, linking many persons and events together in new light. He certainly regarded the South as the one that was menacing and aggressive: by portraying it in the active voice, overall the South was the one clamoring, greedy for more, overpowering in spite of its smaller population. Given the Union’s victory, and the prevailing attitude since, his view is not surprising; however, aside from the South’s obvious rashness, the North was not dormant and taking insults, as his book implies.

It is also not hard to see his admiration of Broderick over Gwin: the former is bold and plain, the latter untrustworthy and corrupted. Yet he barely touches upon the racist issue in California, as represented by the surge of Know-Nothings who targeted the Chinese “heathen celestials.” 14 But to that reluctant admittance Richards insists that the followers initially were “more interested in clean government than nativism.” 15 Perhaps after the agitation of the Sixties and in a time of racial equality, the minorities were no longer in need of maudlin sympathy. Yet, since he mentions other aspects of the pre-state California profusely, it seems strange that he omits dealing with the deep racial discrimination these Asian gold miners encountered, at least as part of the reason Chinese failed to prosper in gold rush California. As one deep rooted in California, he expresses genuine interest to his origins; however, he puts too much emphasis on California as reasons to the Civil War, stretching things to the point of distortion. The relationships are amusing, but in reality of dubious significance.

He attempts to write in a casual style, generously using slang and writing plainly. His account thus looks dramatic, aside from the chains that related everyone and the karma that befell the wrongdoers. People were not “experienced,” they “had been around”; the politicians were “marching to the same [or a different] drummer”; Foote was the Senate “gadfly.” 16 Also, at least in the early half of his book, he has a most irritating habit of breaking sentences in half. He would begin the thought: “Not only was…” and ends it in a period before bringing up the second half, the “also” part. The effort to simplify his sentences, instead of facilitating understanding, rather underestimates the readers’ intelligence.

As a history work it contains a disproportional element of drama. Brannon profited from his insidious ways and fell just as drastically; a critic of the Tammany Hall, Broderick hypocritically established a similar system in San Francisco, died in the hands of an ingrate whom he once rescued, and was avenged by someone indebted to him; Cornelius Vanderbilt, who while away suffered betrayal from his business trustees, relentlessly sought revenge, resulting directly in William Walker—several time filibusterer to Nicaragua—’s downfall. Richards also devotes copious pages describing the appearance and background of each man: Gwin, for instance, is described as looking “much like the Hollywood version of an Old South senator”—just as his political aspiration. 17 But left out are some unexplained transitions. If the few Chivs politicians so easily manipulated California, why were they unable to spur the state to secession in 1861, for instance? Though it might be picking bones from an egg, after Richards guided the readers all along, they deserve a consistent help. The transition is especially crucial, since the thesis of the book has been explaining the connection between the California question and the coming of the Civil War. However, it seems that toward the end of the book, Richards starts to get tired—and even stops breaking his sentences in halves.

The development of the Pacific state was crucial to the politics of its eastern sister states. Southern politicians lamented that the “bunch of ‘first-comers, a conglomerated mass of gold diggers, foreign and native’” prevented them from their rightful share of the golden state. 18 The statehood further added to the panic of those who saw their power waning in the federal government. The eastern contest to ally California turned ugly, directly resulting in suspicions and distrusts. Californian gold, aside from contributing to the Union’s war effort, freely flowed out to the world, reversed the global trend to deflation, multiplied the available coins, and replaced silver as the standard currencies.

The gold rush California was peculiar in its plural culture and single stratum young male population. For each of the “complete forests of masts” that welcomed the future Australian gold discoverer, Edward Hargraves, may represent Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians, Hawaiians, Tahitians, British convicts, French, and Chinese. 19 Put side by side to compete for a limited resource with Easterners grown up in a predominantly white environment, in the peak of their youths and lacking the influence of intelligent women to “civilize the place,” as the New York reformer Eliza Farnham failed to accomplish, the untold story of conflicts and tensions between the miners is left entirely to the readers’ imagination. 20 Inversely, however, the infantile California was composed of predominantly males and all within a narrow age range, hinting at lawlessness and violence, but also providing for political advancement—it really was the land of opportunities… for some.

Harold Holzer of the New York Sun insightfully recognizes the events in California as a microcosm representative of the incoming Civil War. It was torn between bitter slavery disputes, filled with immigrants and speculators, and threatened by the possibility of being split into two states, one slave and one free. As Holzer concludes, California “suffered from — and reflected — all the vexing problems that plagued antebellum America.” 21 Lui, while concurring with Richards that the Californian education omits the fact, questions his silence on the slavery issue. She considers the vacuum inductive to “a sense of the pros and cons of slavery in only economic, legal, and political terms, rather than as a moral issue.” 22 In both cases, however, the critics are effusive for the new connection Richards makes.

But whatever energies or emotions these conflicts produced, they have ebbed as new ones cover up their existence. Sixty years after that famous duel, golf courses sprang out around the Lake Merced. Of those who visited the place, “many are aware of the Hogan-Fleck match…[but] Scarcely one in a thousand knows that story.” 23 After completing a full circle, the conflict between Broderick and Terry, or to larger extent free-soilers versus slave interests, sinks into an intentionally forgotten world.

 

1. Richards, Leonard L. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) ix

2. Richards viii

3. Richards 13

4. Richards 13

5. Richards 73

6. Richards 75

7. Richards 92

8. Richards 112

9. Richards 114

10. Richards 175

11. Richards 206

12. Richards 230

13. Richards 186

14. Richards 178

15. Richards 176

16. Richards 9, 112, 107

17. Richards 37

18. Richards 104

19. Richards 16

20. Richards 24

21. Holzer, Harold. "The Golden Years of America's Rogue State." The New York Sun 28 Feb 2007 9 Jun 2008 <http://www.nysun.com>

22. Lui, Claire. "Slavery Comes to California?." American Heritage Places 27 Feb 2007 9 Jun 2008 <http://www.americanheritage.com>.

23. Richards 3