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July 1, 2008


The gold standard


Friday is the Fourth of July. The day, in 1776, when thirteen little American colonies in completed a document announcing that they,

are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.

The Declaration of Independence set off a series of events that changed the world.

But so did another document, proclaimed on another Fourth of July.

On July 4, 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican-American War and attached “Upper California” to the United States. The new U.S. Territory on the Pacific Coast might have remained a sleepy outpost for years, perhaps for decades, except for another event that occurred in the same year. In January 1848, James Marshall noticed some shiny pebbles near John Sutter’s sawmill in Coloma. Yes, you guessed it. Gold! Rumors of the discovery gradually drifted east, exciting thousands of people eager to make their fortune. But it wasn’t until December that the news became official, when President James K. Polk said in his State of the Union speech,

The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.

(The president also went on at enthusiastic length about benefits of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in general, adding the prescient statement, “The depot of the vast commerce which must exist on the Pacific will probably be at some point on the Bay of San Francisco.”)

You know what happened next. People — mainly male people — all over the world packed up a few supplies and headed for California. They sailed across the Pacific or around the Horn, braved the mosquito-ridden jungles of Panama, or trudged ever-so-slowly across the North American continent. They transformed the region almost overnight, as Carey McWilliams noted:

In 1849 the population of California was divided into three major groupings: about 10,000 “native Californians” of Spanish-Mexican-Indian descent, concentrated in the southern counties; several hundred “old residents,” who had arrived in California prior to the discovery of gold; and about 100,000 who had flocked to the state to mine for gold. Two out of every three of these newcomers were foreigners.

Polk’s prediction about the port of San Francisco came true more quickly than he had imagined, as ships bearing people and goods sailed into the harbor. Judge Peter H. Burnett, soon to become California’s first governor, wrote:

We have here in our midst a mixed mass of human beings from every part of the wide earth, of different habits, manners, customs, and opinions, all, however, impelled onward by the same feverish desire of fortune-making…. We are in fact without government, — a commercial, civilized, and wealthy people, without law, order, or system.

Ordinarily, a U.S. Territory remained in a tutelary stage for many years, administered from Washington as it gradually acquired residents and local institutions. And ordinarily, a U.S. Territory remained poor, gradually building up its economy. Eventually Congress, in its wisdom, would decide it was time to advance the territory to statehood.

Not so in California.

In less than a year, the Territory of California had the population needed for statehood. And it was rich.  Its residents desperately needed — and fervently wanted — to govern themselves rather than wait for decisions made three thousand miles away. They decided follow an old American custom and take matters into their own hands. But unlike the Founding Fathers, who unilaterally separated themselves from their mother country, the Californians unilaterally bound themselves to it. They created their own statehood and presented it to Congress for approval.

The man in charge of the chaos was the military governor, General Bennett Riley. He had the sense to realize that he was not cut out for civilian government, but also that the region was filled with men who were. Riley called for elections all over the territory on August 1 to choose delegates to a constitutional convention in Monterey. The convention convened on September 1 — 36 American citizens, 7 Californios, and 3 foreigners. (Because only two of the native Californians spoke English, an interpreter was provided.)  The delegates worked till October 13, when they gathered to sign what they had created. New York Tribune reporter Bayard Taylor was one of the two observers:

The Chair was taken by the old pioneer [John Sutter], and the members took their seats around the sides of the hall, which still retained the pine trees and banners left from last night’s [party] decorations. The windows and doors were open, and a delightful breeze came in from the bay, whose blue waters sparkled in the distance. The view from the balcony in front was bright and inspiring. The town below — the shipping in the harbor — the pine-covered hills behind — were mellowed by the blue October haze, but there was no cloud in the sky.

They produced a remarkable document, which set the tone for the state’s future. The constitution opened with a “Declaration of Rights” mirroring the U.S. Constitution’s first ten amendments and went on to describe the democratic duties and responsibilities of the three branches of the government. It incorporated the Spanish custom of community property rights in marriage and called for laws to keep a wife’s previously owned property separate from her husband’s. It gave voting rights to “every white male citizen of the United States, and every white male citizen of Mexico, who shall have elected to become a citizen of the United States” over the age of 21. (The question of voting rights for Indians was left up to the legislature; women and other people of color were excluded.) And it outlawed slavery, a hotly contested issue in the rest of the country.

The not-yet-State of California was already roiling the political waters, proposing measures that many Americans found revolutionary. The new constitution was submitted to the voters, who approved it in November 1849. California’s request for statehood created a furor in Congress, which had been dithering over the subject of slavery in new states for years. Result No. 1: the Compromise of 1850, which is credited with calming political tensions and postponing the Civil War. Result No. 2: statehood for California.

The moral of this story: There is no stopping intelligent men of good will when they’re backed by cold hard cash.

Thanks for reading. Have a Happy Fourth of July! I’m outta here till next Tuesday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008