“Much Ignorance, Misapprehension, and Misconception”: A Memorial of California’s Senators and Representatives Asking for Admission to the Union, 18 March 1850

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a recent post and other references in this blog have noted, the stunning developments in California after the American seizure of the area from México during the Mexican-American War and the staggering discovery of immense deposits of gold shortly afterward led to rapid transformations in extraordinarily short order. Congress debated what to do with this vertically challenging possession because of slavery being allowed for southern states but denied for northern ones and California was geographically situated as both.

Meanwhile, among the many tens of thousands who flocked here from other parts of the United States were those who quickly agitated and lobbied for a quick admission of California to the Union and many in Washington salivated at the prospect of a gold-infused economic boon to the country. As debates wore on in the hall of Congress, though, a decision was made to hold a convention in Monterey at the end of 1849 to draft a constitution, even if delays continued in the nation’s capital.

The California constitution was ratified by the delegates just before Christmas and three months later, a “Memorial of the Senators and Representatives Elect From the State of California” was presented to both houses of Congress. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is the printed document from the House of Representatives, dated 18 March 1850, and which has many remarkable statements, beside the full text of the constitution.

At the outset, the quartet of senators William M. Gwin and John C. Frémont and representativces George W. Wright and Edward Gilbert made it very clear that they “learned with astonishment and sincere regret” since they went to Washington to take their seats “of the existence of an organized, respectable, and talented opposition to the admission of the New State.” With such a resolute opposing force, “so decided in its sectional character,” formed against the concept of admitting California, the men felt it would be unfair to the consituents back home and detrimental “to the cause of good government, and to the progressive advance of freedom and civilization,” if they didn’t address the issue.

Consequently, the four stated that

Fully aware that much ignorance, misapprehension, and misconception exist in the public mind of the Atlantic States relative to their country, its citizens, and the proceedings by which a State government has been recently formed there, and deeply sorrowful that unjust charges should have been made against the character, intelligence, and virtue of their constituents, [the quartet] have deemed it obligatory upon then, in presenting in a formal manner the request of the State of California for admission into the American Union, that they should, by a narration of facts, at once and forever silence, those who have disregarded the obligations of courtesy, and all the rules of justice, by ungenerous insinuations, unfair deductions, false presmises, and unwarranted conclusions.

Those of us prone to long sentences may take some comfort in knowing that others are far wordier!

The representatives stated that it was from the first migration “in any considerable numbers” to California in 1845 (nearly four years, though, after the Rowland and Workman Expedition arrived in Los Angeles), composed of some 500 persons, that “constituted the basis from which sprung the train of causes which led to the ultimate subjugation of the country.” Stating it was well understood what happened thereafter, the quartet moved to the postwar period, specifically the appointment of Colonel Richard B. Mason as military and civil governor of California on 31 May 1847.

With the conquest, it was asserted, “the country was quiet, and the population orderly, industrious, intelligent, and enterprising,” though what part of the citizenry fit this description was not stated. Yet, they continued, there was “suspicion, disagreement, and discontent” concerning the collection of revenue from imports and “slight cases of individual severity and infringement by the military and naval commandants” upon “the inherent rights of the citizen, together with a natural jealousy of military rule.”

The Americans, “who had now become quite numerous by continual arrivals of emigrants, both by sea and land,” were most notably of this mindset, but, it was added “the feeling was also participated in to a great extent by the native [that is, Spanish-speaking Californios, not the indigenous people] citizens of the country, who were further influenced by the chagrin, hatred, and uncertainty which are sure to fill the breasts of a subjugated but courageous people.”

While the vestiges of the Mexican-era political system were maintained for continuinty and as a contingency pending a decision as to California’s status, it was stated that something else need to be done to establish a reasonable civil form of government. Even as opprobious tariffs continued to be charged at ports, the four representatives said that there was no known example of “unlawful or riotous resistance to the constituted authorities.” Another series of overland migrations in fall 1847 added to the movement for some action regarding a civil authority, even as, it was claimed, “the original citizens of California had become in a measure satisfied with their position” because Americans behaved with “a courteous and upright character.”

Still, the narrative went on, “an uncertainty seemed to pervade the whole country” and farming, commerce and general business suffered. The military, moreover, collected its revenues, but was stingy in its spending and this “gave rise to complaints that the military power was taxing the people, without allowing them a voice in the matter,” which is basically the Revolutionary concern of taxation without representation. Then came April 1848 in which it was stated that “the extraordinary of the discovery of the gold mines” took place, though that actually happened in late January, though it was in the spring that the news finally reached San Francisco, upon which “instantly the whole territory was in a blaze.”

The result was that

The towns were deserted by their male population, and a complete cessation of the whole industrial pursuits of the country was the consequence. Commerce, agriculture, mechanical pursuits, professions, all were abandoned for the purpose of gathering the glittering treasures which lay buried in the ravines, the gorges, and the rivers of the Sierra Nevada. The productive industry of the country was annihilated in a day. In some instances the moral perceptions were blunted, and men left their families unproviuded, and soldiers desertd their colors. The desire for gold was not regulated by any of the ordinary processes of reasoning; and such as the disastrous effect of the discovery of the precious ore upon the social, business, and political interests of the country, that the high hopes which the far-seeing and patriotic had entertained of the future progress and greatness of California, were dashed at once to the ground. A pall seemed to settle upon the country; and even the bewildered miners wondered as to the result!

In time, however, reason returned, especially “as the novelty of gold-digging was dispelled by a correct understanding of the difficult and laborious nature of the pursuit.” Even as word of the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war was made known in the summer of 1848, the military administration continued, even as hopes of at least a territorial organization were maintained. The tariff that contributed to the military was ended, as required once a treaty was ratified, but Governor Mason continued the collection of revenues by the dictates of federal law causing more grumbling and he was taken to task for not calling a territorial convention and then yielding to a duly elected civil governor.

It was asserted that once miners, who were said to be 80% of the male work force in California, returned from the mountains to settlements, they found a “desolate and unthrifty appearance” around them. The only remedy, it was felt, “was the establishment of a stable system of government, which would command the respect and obedience of the people,” given current conditions and the continued inaction of Congress.

The elected officials added that there were continuing waves of immigration and a “still greater prospective increase in the year to come,” so that “the growing demands of an enterprising and progressive people, all required a new and compatible system of government.” Beyond that, there was chaos from “recent murders, highway robberies, and other outrages in various portions of the country, had convinced the honest and the orderly that anarchy, misrule, and wrong were abroad in the land.” Alas, law and order did rise up, it was said, “and terrible indeed was the retribution meted out to the offenders,” though where this was by the constituted authorities or by extralegal means was left unstated.

An early inspiration for action came in San Jose in December 1848 where a meeting was held calling for a provisional territorial government “to remain in force until Congress should discharge its duty and supersede it by a regular territorial organization.” Shortly afterward, a pair of conclaves took place in San Francisco and concurred with that call, while other gatherings happened at Sacramento, Monterey and Sonoma and numbers of delegated to a proposed constitutional convention were devised. Yet, other areas, including Los Angeles, “failed to concur in this movement” and it seemed to be that a winter 1849 call for a convention was not inconvenient because of rainy weather and difficulty of travel. Moreover, rumors that Congress was to finally act by spring led to a calming for the clamor for a convention.

Meanwhile, there was local legislative entities created in the north, such as in Sacramento, San Francisco and Sonoma and, with Congress once again adjourning by late spring without action on California’s status, a renewed effort to form a constitution arose, especially as General Bennet Riley arrived to replace Mason, stirring more hostility among many residents. Riley, seeing the agitation and excitation, issued a proclamation on 3 June suggesting that delegates be elected for a convention to be held at Monterey in September. Riley’s actions in being more responsive to citizen concerns also assuaged the anger of many, including those that denied the general’s authority to call for a convention, even as the momentum for a civil government was gaining full steam.

More mass meetings in June led to a general concurrence with Riley’s idea, even if not his right to do so, to hold the constitutional confab as announced. On 1 August elections were held to appoint delegates, there were 73 elected, but only four dozen showed up, and the convocation opened its deliberations as planned on 1 September, with the convention ended on 13 October. In its discussions about the proceedings, the quartet were sure to say that “the provision in the constitution excluding [slavery] meets with the almost unanimous approval of that people” in California. While it was stated overtly that slavery was illegal under Mexican rule, there were larger unstated reasons for keeping slaves out, which would constitute undesired competition for labor among other perceived problems.

Mentioned was also made about the possible eastern and southern borders, with the former promoted by some as being that which existed under México while others called for the summit of the Sierra Nevadas. As to the south, one proposal was at above the 36th degree of latitude and because “eleven of the delegates sitting in the convention representated a large constituency south of that line,” which went north of what became Bakersfield, “the people of the southern portion of California most certainly did not wish, and probable never would consent to, such a separation.” Moreover, it was argued, the predominance of Spanish-speaking Californios “should become, as speedily as possible, Americans in sentiment and language” and a divide at that degree would be detrimental to that desire. Frémont’s famed explorations and surveys from earlier in the Forties were invoked in the boundary discussion, which continued to be discussed as admission moved closer to reality.

The quartet also addressed the qualification for voting on the constitution, noting that men twenty-one years or older who were American citizens, those Mexicans who became citizens by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo or “Mexican citizens who had been forced to leave their country in consequence of giving aid and succor to the American arms during the recent war” were granted suffrage. Any accuations that others, including “foreigners, aliens, and adventurers” were allowed to vote was disabused, and it was added that, of the more than 12,000 ballots cast, only 1,300 were of Californios and the remainder “totally American.” Addressing again the unfounded allegations and aspersions cast by others, the representatives proclaimed:

You will search history in vain for an example of order under excitement like that which California has presented for the last two years. And it is the proud boast of every American, that to the republican education which that people have received is due the extraordinary state of things which has heretofore rendered life and property secure where there was no law but the law of force. Yet this people, whose conduct has excited the admiration of every portion of the civilized world where their cause is understood, are disparaged by a portion of their American brothers!

Of course, the indigenous people, the Chinese, and many Mexicans, Central and South Americans, and Californios would take exception to these claims of “order under excitement.” The four men had nothing but the highest approbation to relay about the delegates and their behavior at the convention, though they, again, minimized the conflicts that arose and such disagreeable elements as the claim of some delegates that Manuel Dominguez, an esteemed rancher from Los Angeles, was considered to be Black and not eligible to participate in the proceedings.

The ratification of the constitution took place on 13 November under very stormy conditions with heavy rains, so that the turnout was only some 15,000 persons, of which up to 1,500 were on blanks where the words “for the constitution” were somehow omitted. The tally was 12,061 for approval of the document and 811 against it. Despite this, it was claimed “that no political result in the history of any nation is more surely the honest expression of a public opinion founded in reason, reflection, and deliberate judgment, than the ratification afforded by the people of California to their constitution.”

In mid-December, the legislature convened at San Jose, while Governor Peter H. Burnett assumed his office a few days later, while county and city elections were to take place a couple of months after this memorial was published. Despite the fact that this establishment of a preemptive civil government “is anomalous,” the quartet argued that the patriotism of California’s citizens, numbering an estimated 107,000 as of the first of January 1850 (though the fluid nature of the situation with the Gold Rush made certainty elusive), and elected officials was amply demonstrated and that governance would follow the dictates of the United States Constitution and federal law. Moreover, it was expected that those of the eastern states “would instantly open its doors to their delegates representatives, and that the State would be immediately and gladly admitted.”

Beyond the 107,000 figure cited by the representatives, tables represented that, as of 1 January 1849, the population, beyond the indigenous people and Blacks, was 26,000, of which half were Californios, 8,000 were Americans, and the remaining foreigners. Through 11 April, another 6,000, half Americans, came by sea and another 2,000 from land from northern Mexico to search for hold. From that date to the end of 1849, there were said to be nearly 30,000 more immigrants coming through San Francisco, with over 70% being Americans, about a quarter being foreigners. The gender disparity is not surprising as only 800 women were said to be among that population.

Elsewhere, 1,000 came through other ports and 8,000 overland via Santa Fe and the Gila. Up to 8,000 traveled up from Mexico, though only a quarter remained. There were said to be 3,000 deserting sailors and 30,000 in the “great overland emigration” on the northern route. The estimated figure of 107,069, then, included over 76,000 Americans, 13,000 Californios and 18,000 foreigners.

Returning to the necessity of the admission of California as a state, the four men stated

The people of California are neither rebels, usurpers, nor anarchists. They have not sought to sow the seeds of revolution, that they minght reap in the harvest of discord; they believe that the principles that guided them are true; they know that the motives which actuated them are pure and just; and they hoped that their action would be acceptable to every portion of the common country. They did not expect that their admission as a State would be made the test question upon which would hang the preservation of the American Union, nor did they desire such a result

In fact, it was averred that it was “the anxious desire for the perpetuity of this Union wjhich animates all classes” of California’s residents and “their patriotism is as broad as the republic . . . it is as deep as the current of their mighty rivers, as pure as the never melting snows which crown their mountains, and as indestructible as the virgin hold extracted from their soil.” The platitudes kept on coming as Californians were said to have “a remarkable degree of intelligence, enterprise, and ability, rich in high moral qualities, industrious, energetic, hones, firm in their devotion to order and justice” and that they had “no superiors in the elements which constitute a citizen’s glory and a nation’s greatness.”

In concluding, Gwin, Frémont, Wright and Gilbert informed Congress that their constituents “do not present themselves as supplians, nor do they bear themselves with arrogance or presumption. They come as free American citizens—citizens by treaty, by adoption, and by birth—and ask that they may be permitted to reap the common benefits, share the common ills, and promote the common welfare as one of the United States of America!”

The rest of the document was comprised of the complete text of the 1849 constitution and affidavis of its certification and signature of Governor Burnett. It would remain the guiding document of the Golden State for thirty years and we are still operating under its 1879 successor.

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