“Far Removed From that High and Palmy State of Wealth, Cultivation and Power”: A Call for the Purchase of California from México by the United States in “Littell’s Living Age,” 31 January 1846, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The concept of Manifest Destiny was utilized by many Americans who clamored for the extension of the United States from “sea to shining sea,” or from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, and a major obstacle to that desire was the sovereignty of México over large swaths of territory at the western end of the continent. While there were a significant proportion of people who were concerned about what would happen with the incorporation of Latinos into the country in the event of war and conquest, the inevitable became evitable when the U.S. declared war in May 1846 on its southern neighbor under the flimsy pretext of an unprovoked attack by Mexican forces in Texas, which was recently annexed to America.

Among the many published pieces about the expansion of the United States to the Pacific coast is a piece, simply titled “California” that was first published in the American Review, a magazine issued by the Whigs, the forerunners of the Republicans and then reissued in the 31 January 1846 number of Littell’s Living Age, a journal that consisted of reprints such as this and which is the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post.


The piece, which is unattributed, noted that there were negotiations between México and the new American ambassador to that country, John Slidell (namesake of the city near New Orleans), for the “cession” of California to the U.S. and it was hoped that “the natural progress of events will undoubtedly give us that province just as it gave us Texas” given that “already American emigrants thither are to be numbered by thousands,” starting in 1841, the year the Workman family moved to greater Los Angeles from New Mexico as the first wagon train of Americans reached northern California from Missouri.

The author expressed the hope that the act of acquiring California would be “accomplished by an agency, at once more direct and less questionable in point of national morality” because, he allowed, “we stand open to the charge of having colonized Texas, and recognized her independence, for the express purpose of seizing her soil—that we wrested her territory from Mexico, peacefully and by a gradual process, to be sure, but as really and as wrongfully as if we had conquered her by arms in the field of battle.”


The problem of how to “redeem rebellion from crime” was raised, but it was averred that “these events [Texan independence and the annexation nine years later] had no connection with each other, either in fact or in the intentions of our government.” Still, the idea was not “to see the experiment renewed” when it came to California and “if we are to have a further accession of territory, we hope to see it effected by an open purchase and a voluntary cession” as was the case with Florida and, it was asserted, Oregon, though the situation with the latter was quite different than the former. It was argued that “California . . . may now be purchased . . . for a sum which the country will deem small for so valuable an acquisition.”

Reasserting that it “should become the property, and remain forever under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” the writer dismissed Lower, or Baja, California “as sterile and hopelessly desolate” as well as “the most uninhabitable region of the northern temperate zone” so that it “must always remain an undesirable possession for any country, except one that sways a barren sceptre”—meaning, of course, México.


It was acknowledged that the southern and eastern sections of Upper, or Alta, California were “scarcely more valuable than the lower province” with the area now comprised of Imperial County called “a great burial-place of former fertility, which can never return.” Yet,

The remaining part of Upper California—that which lies nearest the Pacific coast—is not only by far the best portion of the province, but one of the most beautiful regions on the face of the earth.

The area featured in this discussion is what is largely known as central California meaning the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco Bay area, and the Sacramento River valley. With regard to the former, it was stated that the valley was “flooded by heavy and incessant rains” from November to March, which is hardly true, and then from April to October, “an intolerable heat converts this vast fen of stagnant waters into a valley of the Shadow of Death,” though this “evil” was easily handled by draining the waters into the rivers—this, too, is a gross mischaracterization!


The Sacramento River was accounted as not unlike the Nile in that it “enriches and adorns the region through which it runs” and waters “one of the richest and most beautiful regions on the face of the earth”—here, Thomas J. Farnham (1804-1848) was cited as an authority. The most important area of Upper California, then, comprised regions which were drained by the waters that emptied into the Pacific via San Francisco Bay and “of its beauty and fertility, all travellers agree in giving most glowing and enthusiastic descriptions.” These included Jean Francois Galaup, the Comte La Pérouse, George Vancouver, and Alexander von Humboldt.

Farnham and Captain Charles Wilkes, head of the crucial United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 from which an important 1841 map of Upper California was generated, were cited to indicate the agricultural potential of this area, though current farming was “of the rudest and most unskilful [sic] character.” Wheat yields were often said to be remarkable and it was added that corn, potato, barley and other crops were said to do well and the San Joaquin and Sacramento river areas “may easily be turned into some of the richest and most beautiful rice fields in the world.” There was some mention, though, of the south, in that “in the southern portion, cotton, tobacco, figs, lemons, olives, oranges, and especially grapes, seem to find a native and most propitious soil.”


The unnamed author added that “here, then, lies upon the Pacific coast . . . a region of country capable of sustaining a greater population than now inhabits the entire American Union.” Actually, the 1840 census tally was just north of 17 million, while California now is not that far south of 40 million! The problem, however, was that, despite “the finest harbor perhaps in the world” at San Francisco, along with “timber of the best quality,” “measureless waterpower,” “immense agricultural resources,” and “all the elements which nature can furnish of national wealth and national consequence, California

is yet shut out from the influences of Christian [Protestant?] civilization and abandoned to a people who neither know its capacities, nor feel the pressure of any obligation to develop and expand them . . . Nor is there anything in the history of the country, to induce the hope that, under its present control, it will ever attain that position, and serve those ends, in the great scheme of the world’s civilization, for which Providence has so clearly designed it.

There were, it was stated, fewer than 20,000 people and farm yields were meagre while “the whole annual merchantable production of the country, including cattle and furs, its staple commodities, is estimated by Capt. Wilkes at less than a million of dollars.” There was, moreover, no commerce or manufacturing to speak of “and the whole country is even now as far removed from that high and palmy state of wealth, cultivation and power of which it is susceptible.”


Another population estimate for California was provided by Wilkes, who indicated there were 15,000 residents, 60% of whom were natives, with 3,000 “whites,” including Latinx residents, and another 2,000 “of mixed blood,” though what combinations were not elucidated. It was added, however, that “the whites . . . inherit all the vices, with none of the half virtues of their Spanish ancestry; they are utterly ignorant, indolent and rapacious, cruel to their wives and dependants, destitute of spirit, industry and courage, and perfectly incapable of the slightest emotions of ambition, or the faintest pulsation of energy and enterprise.”

Following this blatantly racist characterization of the Spanish-speaking populace was the assertion that “No one . . . can believe it to be for the interest of humanity, for the well-being of the world, that this vast and magnificent region should continue forever in its present state.” California held the potential to support many millions with “all the physical comforts” and “raising them to the highest point of mental and moral cultivation.” With ignorance, laziness, and “moral degradation” maintained under the current system, “there is no hope of its regeneration.”


What was needed was “an impulse of energy, a fiery ambition” which was not possible “from the soft sluggishness of the American Spaniard” and whatever colonization schemes were effected by Mexican authorities, “they were marked by the most perfect ignorance of the nature of the enterprise” leading to misery for the migrants and bringing “ridicule” on the government. The 1836 revolution, Wilkes claimed, was animated by extranjeros (Americans and Europeans), but the result was that the locals “settled back into their old inaction” and lacked “the character required to redeem their country from its low estate.”

The writer pressed on,

California, to become the seat of wealth and power for which Nature has market it, must pass into the hands of another race. And who can conjecture what would now have been its condition, had its first colonists been of the stock which people the Atlantic coast? . . . It soil yields freely and lavishly, to the most ordinary cultivation, an immense variety of the necessaries of life and the staples of commerce. No portion of Europe is more richly endowed with all the wealth of nature—the “dread magnificence” of earth and heaven.

Returning to the inevitability element, it was asserted that it was “the silent, resistless legislation of the Omnipotent Lawgiver” that would “place California beneath other sovereignty than that which now benumbs its powers and stifles and stagnates its undeveloped energy.” The transfer to the United States “is a consummation upon which every reflecting person must look with pleasure and hope.”


An apparently British correspondent from México writing to the London Times claimed that the country was doomed to failure and, while an English occupation was, naturally, the best option, “in the course of a few years it must be incorporated with the United States.” This actually was supposed to entail all the land down to the isthmus of Panama and this writer was quoted as suggesting that such a result would mean that “the general good of humanity must be advanced by the annexation of this country to the American Union.” Moreover, “the wretched Indian race must give way before an influx of a white population among which were to be millions of English, Irish and Scotch immigrants “to fix as settlers in this land of milk and honey.”

After observing that only the British and the Americans had designs on California, the author noted, quoting from a letter from former Massachusetts House of Representatives member Caleb Cushing, that there were English creditors who were reportedly guaranteed 125 million acres of Mexican land because of debts racked up by the latter nation in borrowing from the former and that locations that were likely to include these parcels were California, Texas (presumably after México defeated the rebels who declared independence), New Mexico, Chihuahua and Sonora.


Alexander Forbes, a Scotsman who wrote a history of California, stated in that work that there were views that the Mexican government should cancel its debt of more than $50 million to England “by a transfer of California to the creditors” and that these might form an entity akin to the East India Company, which operated in India, Southeast Asia and China for about 275 years, but became an extraordinarily powerful political force beyond its mercantile beginnings.

Clearly this concept concerned our unidentified writer, who burst out, “And this is the model upon which is to be formed the projected British Company in California! This Western Continent is to be the theatre on which these scenes are to be reënacted!” He quoted the British Foreign Quarterly Review as suggesting that California was a just “appendage to Oregon” and that “the Mexicans would not be sorry to part with it to us upon fair terms.”


A 29 September 1845 letter from the Times correspondent was also cited because of is reference to “the negotiation now going on between the British and Mexican governments for the adoption of a frontier parallel, necessary to British interests.” The question, to the author, was whether there was any “good faith of the friendly disposition towards the government and people of the United States” by México given the situation with Texas.

After all, he observed, “our exactions have been too rigorous, for the wound they [American officials] inflicted upon this sensitive and resentful race to have yet fully healed.” Anticipating what would happen within months, he added, “the sonorous blasts of our mutually defiant armies must even yet be echoing among the marshes between Metamoras [Matamoros, the Mexican city on the border with Brownsville, Texas] and Aransas Bay [on the Gulf coast near Corpus Christi.]


We’ll return tomorrow with the second and final part of this post featuring this most remarkable and interesting article, so be sure to check back then.

Leave a Reply