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Another Perspective

Split Up California

The latest proposal to split up California has been put on hold. It follows—are you ready—two hundred twenty other attempts since California became a state. Be assured I’m not writing about the two hundred twenty attempts, only the early ones that came the closest to being approved. *

Spaniards and Mexicans settled California. They had large estates, which operated cattle ranches or engaged in farming. Most of these people lived in the southern part of California. In 1848 the population of California consisted of approximately fourteen thousand people, and the Indian population. When gold was discovered, conditions changed rapidly. There was an influx of people from Europe, South America, and Asia. By the end of 1849 more than one hundred thousand people lived in California, primarily in the north.

The interests, traditions, and values of the newcomers weren’t the same as those of the original settlers. The Forty-niners lived in northern cities or close together in the foothills. They were interested in mining and getting rich. They leased the land they worked; they didn’t care about owning it. The established families lived in the south on spacious, rural estates and were happy to be left alone, though they welcomed farmers from the southern United States.

Constitutional Convention
From September to mid-October of 1849 California’s constitutional convention was held in Colton Hall, Monterey. Much of the document produced was based on the constitution of Iowa, and to a lesser degree, New York. Only six of the forty-eight delegates to the convention were born in California; all the others were recent
arrivals. Nineteen had lived in California less than three years. Eight spoke only Spanish so each resolution was translated into Spanish before a vote took place. The constitution decreed that all laws must be published in Spanish and English. California began as a bilingual state.

Representatives from the southern counties represented about one-quarter of the
delegates. While hours of debate were devoted to where the eastern border was to be—the Sierra Nevada Mountains or the Rocky Mountains—the strategy of the established families was to vote against the recreation of a new state. They recognized the northerners controlled the convention and they didn’t like what the newcomers wanted.

José Carrillo, a native Californian representing Los Angeles, at fifty-three was the oldest delegate to the convention. He proposed California be divided in two. Those living in San Luis Obispo and south would retain their status as a territory, while those living in the north could become a state. Carrillo explained to the convention that the settled, landholding people of the south feared the transient northerners would treat them unjustly. The southerners were also concerned about being heavily taxed while those in the north without land would not be. The delegates defeated Carrillo’s proposal to split California, 28 to 8.

When the southern delegates threatened to bolt from the convention, a compromise was found that guaranteed the southerners they wouldn’t be oppressively taxed. Constitutional power was given to county assessors and board of supervisors to set tax rates. Landholders and those they influenced would elect the assessors and supervisors.

The estate owners didn’t trust the compromise. Their representatives from San Luis Obispo, San Diego, and Santa Barbara bypassed the convention to petition Congress directly. They called for the land to be split with the north becoming the state of California and the south becoming the territory of Southern California. They argued this division was necessary because the state would be too large and diverse to work; that the sparse population in the south would be under the control of the larger north; that the expenses of the state would fall on the landholders, which would lead to their financial ruin; and that it was hard and inconvenient for southerners to travel to the north for state business.

Congress had its own concerns in 1850 when the petition arrived. Slavery dominated every discussion. When the constitutional convention’s documents arrived in Washington, President Taylor declared California should be admitted to the Union as a free state. A fiery debate ensued that lasted all summer. In the Senate, a bill was introduced to extend the Missouri Compromise across the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. Those living north of this line wouldn’t be allowed to own slaves, while those living south of the line could. The Senate defeated the measure, 32-24.

On August 13th, the Senate voted to admit a unified California to the Union as a free state. Members of the House raised strong objections to the Senate’s bill, but lacked the votes to stop the Senate’s bill. On September 7th the House voted to approve the Senate’s bill admitting California, 156-56. Two days later President Taylor signed the legislation. California was now part of the Union. However, this didn’t end the efforts to divide the state in two.

The Pico Act
Three times during the 1850s the landholders in southern California united with pro-slavery Southerners in Congress to divide California. The last attempt, the Pico Act of 1859, was the most successful. Assemblyman Don Andrés Pico of Los Angeles, a wealthy rancher in the San Fernando Valley, resurrected the idea of the north being the state of California while the south would be called the Territory of Colorado. Pico got the measure through the California Legislature and Governor John B. Weller to sign it. Two-thirds of the citizens of California voted affirmatively for the proposal, with seventy-five percent of the voters in the south desiring the division.

The proposal was sent to Congress. California Senator Milton Latham vigorously urged his colleagues to approve the division. Majority and minority reports were issued to the Federal Relations Committee of the Senate on January 26, 1860. The majority report stated Latham’s contentions were valid and the proposal should be approved. The minority report argued the proposed mode of separation was illegal and unconstitutional, that a new California constitutional convention had to approve the partition before the people of California voted. On March 1, 1860 the Federal Relations Committee voted 37 to 26 to approve the majority report. A bill authorizing the split up of California was voted out of committee and sent to the Senate floor. But it was 1860, Lincoln had been elected President, and the Union was unraveling. The Senate’s focus was on what to do about slavery while keeping the Union together. On April 12th the Civil War began. There was no longer time for the Senate to debate and vote on dividing California. The measure was never taken up and died. California remained undivided.

* There were also attempts to secede from the Union, one of which in 1860-61 included Oregon, the Utah territory, which included Nevada, and the northern section of the New Mexico territory. This new country would be called the Pacific Republic and have ten states, with half of them being permanent slave states. General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Federal troops stationed in Benicia, California prevented the rebellion from moving forward. What makes this particularly noteworthy is General Johnston believed states have the right to secede from the Union, though he didn’t approve of it. How he stopped the Pacific Republic from forming is a story for another time.

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