by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most underappreciated elements of the Mexican-American War, as fought in greater Los Angeles and elsewhere in those portions of Mexico that became part of the United States in America’s first imperial war, is the question of handling claims against the government for expenses incurred by military officials using material provided by private citizens.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a report from the House of Representatives, dated this day in 1848, specifically from its Committee on Military Affairs, to which a Senate bill on “ascertaining and paying the California claims” was referred for its consideration.
That bill recommended an appropriation of $700,000 “to defray the expenses of the late military operations in California, together with the expenses of the civil government established by Commodore Stockton.” Moreover, three military officers, including Lt. Col. John C. Frémont “were to repair to California and sit as a board of commissioners, for a period of 18 months, to adjudicate and settle the claims existing against the United States.”
An outgrowth, however, of this effort involved the controversial Frémont in that “grave charges are preferred by Colonel [Richard B.] Mason, now acting governor in California” against him while the former was serving as governor. This had to do with a loan contracted by Frémont from a California, Antonio José Cot. With respect to this conflict, the report observed that:
It is apparent that the committee had no opportunity, if they had been so disposed, to investigate the charges thus brought by one distinguished officer of the government, now in the public service, against another who had rendered himself conspicuous as an officer of science, skill, energy, and general ability, in the department of topographical engineers, in which he had been advantageously employed by his government, and whose general integrity had before stood unimpeached.
The committee opined that such a process could only have happened in California, with Mason and Frémont appearing and witnesses called, but the body decided that it would not “express any opinion in regard to the accusation of Governor Mason, or to the sufficiency of the defense, or explanation offered by Colonel Frémont.”
The charge preferred, though, was so serious that the commission recommended an amendment to the bill that would allow the president “to appoint a board of commissioners to ascertain and settle all equitable claims . . but requiring such commissioners to be wholly disinterested and disconnected with the claims and liabilities aforesaid.” Obviously, this was directed at Frémont’s participation on the commission.
Notably, however, the committee reduced the amount in the bill to a half million dollars, doing so because “from the testimony of Colonel Frémont himself, (taken before the Senate committee), who is supposed to be most conversant with the extent of the claims in California” that amount was considered reasonable. Others apparently felt that $300,000 would be sufficient to settle claims.
There was a recounting of the situation involving Frémont who, thanks to his immensely powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, was appointed to lead explorations in the American West as a captain of topographical engineers. On his third such endeavor, Frémont was involved in intrigues involving Americans in northern California who were fomenting problems with the Mexican officials there.
The report stated that the captain “left that province for Oregon early in the spring of 1846, in order to avoid difficulties with the authorities in California, to whim he had became an object of jealousy and suspicion.” What was left unsaid is that Frémont was an interloper in another country and Alta California officials had every right to be concerned about his activities and the reasons for them.
Still, after he’d left California, he was hailed, on 8 May, by Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, who delivered a letter from Secretary of State James Buchanan, later the president from 1857-1861, and missives for U.S. Consul at Monterey, Thomas Oliver Larkin, and one for Frémont from Senator Benton. There were, though, also verbal instructions from Buchanan:
which had for their principal objects (says Colonel Frémont) to ascertain the disposition of the California people to conciliate their feelings in favor of the United States, and to find out, with a design of counteracting, the designs of the British government upon that country.
The Benton letter, it seems, was meant to explain Buchanan’s orders, but the report went on to note that what Frémont did was to return to Northern California with his party “where at once they ‘joined the settlers’ (or the settlers joined them) and engaged in a revolutionary movement against the authorities of California” leading to the creation of that Bear Flag Republic. A key issue here was whether Frémont and company joined the settlers or oversaw actions that had the latter joining them.
The committee added that there was no way, to that point, for people in California to know of the state of war between the U.S. and Mexico, but the supposition was that Gillespie’s delivery of messages to Frémont was for that purpose. The body, moreover, noted that “it is very manifest that much yet remains to be told of this, as yet, dark and mysterious proceeding.”
On 7 July, Navy Commodore John D. Sloat sailed into Monterey, seized it, and flew the American flag “upon which Frémont hauled down the bear flag.” The latter claimed that the former requested him to go to Monterey “to co-operate with him.” He added the Sloat “appeared uneasy at the great responsibility he assumed” and that the commodore asked Gillespie “for his authority, but that he had declined to give it.”
Sloat then asked Frémont “under what instructions I had acted in taking up arms against the Mexican authorities,” to which the supremely confident captain replied “I had acted solely on my own responsibility, and without any authority from the government to justify hostilities.”
Frémont testified that “Commodore Sloat appeared greatly disturbed with this information” and said that, by taking Monterey, “he had acted on the faith of our operations. Sloat then, in this account, “soon relinquished the command to Commodore [Robert F.] Stockton, who determined to prosecute hostilities to the complete conquest of California.”
The report noted that “from this, it would appear that neither Frémont nor Sloat had any authority for the part they bore in the revolutionary movements in California.” Consequently, the logical conclusion was
that whatever expenses were incurred in California, either in respect to the military operations or civil government, prior to the knowledge of the existence of war between the United States and Mexico, were the result of operations undertaken either upon individual responsibility, and without the authority of the government, or any of its departments, or that such authority being given, it is not only not disclosed, but studiously withheld from the public eye.
This is strong, pointed phrasing concerning the lack of coordination between American military officers and the conclusion made by the committee was that it “have thought it right to limit the payments in California to such claims as were the result of operations which took place after the flag of independence [Bear Flag Revolt]” but if any claims were to be accepted from before then, those in charge “shall be required to show by what authority they undertook to contract debts on behalf of the government of the United States.
Because Congress was to soon adjourn for a break and for other reasons “forbear to present their views in regard to the” president or heads of departments and their constitutional authority to give commands to “any officer of the government to engage in any insurrectionary or revolutionary movement in the territory of a neighboring State, with which we were then at peace, and afterwards ask Congress to foot the bill.”
The committee concluded by stating that “however strong the objection to such a course, in regard to which, if true, the committee could not express themselves too strongly,” it was not ready to have “a subordinate officer to bear the responsibility of such a violation of constitutional duty on the part of his superior.” Therefore, it went on “it would be more just to discharge all the obligations entered into by him by virtue of such authority, and to hold those responsible from whom the authority proceeded.”
With that, the committee ended with a statement that it was passing along “the accompanying bill as a substitute for the bill from the Senate.” Meanwhile, we’ll return in a few days to this report and more specificity on claims brought forward in it.