by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the aftermath of the American seizure of Mexican Alta California in 1846-47 during the Mexican-American War, the United States Congress was presented with major challenges in dealing with the large possession and its status within the country. Beyond the fundamental political question, the staggering discovery of gold that soon followed and which drew tens of thousands of gold seekers from other parts of the planet exponentially complicated the situation.
The matter stretched nearly four years after the taking of Los Angeles in early January 1847 ended the conflict in California and it involved a great deal of debate in the House of Representatives and the Senate about what to do with this territory that, when it came to the question of statehood, was both north and south, upending the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and its provision that slavery would be prohibited in any territory west of that new state and north of its southern border.
Advocates of a quick admission of California as a state were obviously mindful of the balance kept with the number of free and slave states as well as the obvious fact that the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise was rendered useless by California’s large size and its unusual north-south orientation, even if its boundaries were hardly settled. In fact, there were some who proposed that California extend much further east than it does now.
Today’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the 7 March 1849 issue of the Daily National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C., and which featured a very lengthy article reproducing the debate on a “Civil and Diplomatic Appropriation Bill” and an amendment by Senator Isaac P. Walker, selected to that body to represent the newly admitted state of Wisconsin the previous summer, “in relation to the Territories acquired from Mexico.”
The article mostly printed the remarks of Senator John Adams Dix of New York, made on the floor on 28 February, just days before he ended his term because William H. Seward, later Secretary of State under presidents Lincoln and Johnson, was elected by the state legislature (senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913) and was to take his seat on the 4th, the same day Zachary Taylor assumed the presidency.
Dix’s remarks about California are particularly interesting for his views on why the possession did not merit admission and are the focus of this post, though much else was said about the precedent for the admission of states acquired by conquest or purchase, such as involved the situation following the Louisiana Purchase nearly a half-century before. There is also important material in the piece concerning slavery in California and other areas seized during the late war.
The senator was particularly responding to an amendment offered by Senator Walker regarding the idea of providing “the President with extraordinary powers to govern those territories” taken from México (there was a $15 million payment made subsequently), while there was also one by Tennessee Senator John Bell, later a Democratic Party candidate for president in 1860, to admit California and New Mexico as a state, but one allowing for slavery. While Dix was hardly in favor of Bell’s amendment, he added “I would rather admit California and New Mexico into the Union as a state, utterly unfit as I think they are, than to arm the President with despotic powers to govern these territories.”
Meanwhile, a committee chaired by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois (whose 1858 debates with Lincoln were famous) suggesting the creation of “a state out of a portion of California” while a state of New Mexico would be left for the future. Dix stated that he had just introduced a bill that would provide for the government of California as a territory “on the basis of law, with powers clearly defined for the governing, and rights clearly defined for the governed,” and that all the possessions acquired during the war should be so designated. Dix also stated that Walker’s amendment was “the most objectionable proposition I have been required to vote upon since I have been a member of this body,” this being, however, just four years.
After reviewing some of the history of the establishment and administation of territories, with particular attention to Florida and its admission as a territory three years after it was acquired from Spain, Dix referred to the “prudence and caution in the founders of the republic” when it came to what to do with new possessions. His essential point was “that no State ought to be admitted into the Union which has not been prepared by a familiar knowledge of the theory and practice of our political system” so that its acceptance as a state would be “an aid and an advantage, not an embarrassment and an obstacle, to the steady action of the system.”
Simply put, the senator continued, “this requirement, which I consider absolute, is not fulfilled by the condition of California.” Why this was so was clearly enumerated by Dix:
Let me state some of the leading objections to it, as they relate to the condition of California: 1. Its present inhabitants are, to a considerable extent, Indians or Mexicans of mixed bloo. 2. They are, for the most part, uneducated. 3. They are no sufficiently familiar with the business of self-government. 4. They do not even speak our language. 5. They would not come into the Union with an enlightened understanding of the principles of our political system, or with the general cultivation and intelligence essential to such a fulfilment [sic] of the duties and responsibilities of the American citizen as to render them safe participants in the administration of the Government. I need not enlarge upon these propositions. Those who are familiar with the condition of California and the character of the people will assent to their truth.
The senator added that “I know very well that territory is rapidly filling up, and that it is receiving from us thousands of citizens, active, enterprising, and of unexceptionable character.” That, however, had to be measured against the fact, Dix averred, that “we also know that it is receiving multitudes of adventurers from almost every quarter of the globe—from both hemispheres—from Oceanica [sic] to the European continent and islands—some for a permanent abode, but more for more temporary purposes.”
Before he would give assent to statehood for a place with such a motley assemblage, Dix offered “I wish to see this heterogeneous mass pass through the process of fermentation, to which it is destined, and settle down into something like consistence, before we undertake to endow it with all the attributed of self-government.” To him, the best precedents were such examples as Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848), in which “these territories were settled chiefly by our own people,” of course, after the indigenous people were killed off or dispersed. Moreover, he claimed, “they were nurtured in the love of liberty, and trained to the exercise of political rights.” Finally, “all their associations were of a character to render them safe depositaries [sic] of the priceless treasure of freedom.” Yet, none were so quickly admitted to the Union as was being proposed for California.
Returning to the disqualification of California, the senator reiterated his objections plainly in stating that “her physical and social condition is as unsuited to the independent management of her own concerns as her intellectural and moral [ones.]” For one thing, “her population is scattered over a vast surface” and there was no commercial enterprise of note as “she has hardly emerged from the pastoral state and risen to the grade of an agricultural community. Beyond this,
the recent discoveries of gold have made a bad condition worse; they have dissolved, for the time being, the very bonds of society . . . when all the obligations which bind men to the performance of their duty appear to have lost their force; when ships are abandoned by their crews; when soldiers desert by platoons and companies; when villages and towns are depopulated; and when the whole community is possessed by the phrenzy [sic] of gold digging, and lose sight of all other objects, we call upon them to meet in solemn conclave and perform the highest and most responsible of all deliberative acts—that of framing a constitution for their own government—a work of solemnity and soberness and calm reflection. I have been from the beginning opposed to this whole scheme.
Dix went on to suggest that if there was ever an example best suited for the administration of a new possession “until it shall have passed through the period of probation . . . a period rendered doubly perilous there by the prevailing disorganization—that occasion is presented in the condition of California.” Creating a territory with a consistent oversight by the federal government would “control and remedy existing embarrassments and evils.
The senator. however, was also adamant that there be no talk of “dismemberment” of California, adding “I would keep that territory as it is until the spread of population and the growth of improvement snall indicate where the division line can be drawn with least prejudice to the parties concerned.” There was talk of “a chain of mountains as the eastern boundary” this being the Douglas committee’s recommendation of “the dividing range separating the waters flowing into the Colorado from those flowing into the Great Basin,” which appears to be the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.
Dix cautioned, “Sir, physical obstacles are not always the most appropriate or convenient . . . moral obstacles are more powerful to repel, and moral affinities more powerful to attract, than physical. Identity or diversity of race, association, or codnition often does more than rivers, and mountains, and plains to bind men together or force them asunder.” One cited example was that Chesapeake Bay seems a reasonable natural boundary, yet Maryland spans both sides. Moreover, with the Louisiana Purchase, a huge portion was organized under the jurisdiction of the territory of Indiana “and it had a more extended area than California.”
It was, Dix noted, “the movement of population, physical development, social progress, and their incidents—these are the causes which mark out permanent boundaries betwen separate States.” The bottom line, he felt, was “let us leave California to be filled up, and the races which occupy it can better determine than we who shall live apart and who together.” Yet, when it came to the question of slavery, the senator’s position was unequivocal: “I hold, then, that territorial governments ought to be organized for California and New Mexico, and that the act establishing them should contain a prohibition of slavery” and that “there was never an occasion in which such a prohibition was demanded by higher obligations than the present.”
The senator then reviewed the legislative history, as he saw, it, of slavery, concluding that, while the federal government had no right to interfere with the institution as it existed in the Southern states, it was clear that the extension of it was not to be allowed in new territories, per the Ordinance of 1787. Dix added that “the policy of the founders of the republic was to get rid of slavery, by preventing its extension, and by suppressing the African slave trade.”
Sir, I hold the exercise of this power for the exclusion of slavery from California and New Mexico to be of even higher obligation than it was in respect to the Northwest Territory . . . the situation of California and New Mexico is entirely different. Mexico has long since abolished slavery throughout her limits . . . though, as a nation, but imperfectly civilized, struggling against the embarrassment of bad government, and distracted by internal dissensions, arising, in a great degree, out of the heterogeneous character of her population, Mexico has, nevertheless, placed her institutions on the broad foundation of human liberty, by declaring all within her limits to be free.
To permit slavery to be carried into California and New Mexico would be to annul this declaration, and to re-establish slavery where it has been abolished. I cannot consent to any settlement of this question which can by possibility have such a result.
When Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote asked what damage could be done if the people of California and New Mexico could “do with this matter as they please,” Dix replied “if we carry slavery into New Mexico and California, we shall do it against the wishes of the people there. They have no slaves now, and we should plant slavery where it does not exist.” He further claimed that “there is nothing in the soil and climate which renders the labor of the African race necessary.”
After expounding on the marvel of California’s “maritime valley which lies on the Pacific” and which was “the finest region of the same extent in the western hemisphere,” Dix asserted that “there is no need of blacks in California; the white race can labor there without difficulty. The productions are such as to require the care and intelligence of the more intellectual race. It would be a perversion of the purposes of nature, in more senses than one, to carry slaves there.”
In the conclusion of the remarks made by Dix, he was further questioned by senators James Mason of Virginia and Thomas J. Rusk, one of Texas’ first senators, concerning the coleague’s references to the insistence of Mexican negotiators when working on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, that slavery be forbidden in any territory ceded to the United States. Foote then remarked that Southern states were not “urging her right, in any shape or form, to be authorized specially by law to carry slaves there.” Rather, he emphatically stated, “We ask nothing but to be let alone [original italics.]”
This article, though just one of many reprinting transcripts from debates in both houses of Congress concerning the complex status of California after its seizure by the United States, is a remarkable look at some of the major issues involved. In late 1849, frustrated with waiting to hear from Congress, residents of California, many of them Gold Rush arrivals, convened a convention that created a constitution, including the prohibition of slavery, followed by the establishment of a government months before the Compromise of 1850 allowed for admission into the Union that September.
It is not true, as Dix claimed, that there were no slaves in California prior to his speech. Indigenous people were treated in that way at the missions and ranchos and slaves were brought by Southern gold miners and other migrants. His claims, moreover, that Californios were uneducated and incapable of understanding self-government is also false and there were obviously plenty of illiterate Americans not well-schooled on democratic principles! Finally, being against slavery did not mean that people like Dix believed that Blacks were capable or deserving of full participation in society and his comments about California not needing African American labor shows clearly his racist views towards them, as well as to Latinx and native peoples. California, with its heterogeneous population, posed significant challenges when it came to its for Americans, northern and southern, 170 years ago and issues related to citizenship and participatory democracy, while not in the same ways, continue to be major issues in the country today.