California Statehood Angers Many
Amid much controversy and after prolonged, bitter debate in both Houses of Congress, California became the 31st state on Sept. 9, 1850. This huge territory had been wrested from Mexico in the Mexican-American War, conceded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Feb. 2, 1848, ending that war. Almost no one knew it at the time the treaty was signed, but just nine days earlier gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill, which would soon launch the California Gold Rush.
The addition of California to the Union brought a lengthy coastline, vast and fertile forests and fields, and abundant mineral resources—especially gold. Why, therefore, did California’s statehood anger many people, and increase the tension threatening to tear the United States apart? The answer is one word: slavery. California was admitted as a Free State, one in which slavery was outlawed, and therein lay the controversy.
California’s statehood was part of an intricate piece of legislation known as the Compromise of 1850, which was designed to preserve the Union by appeasing the North and the South, abolitionists and slave owners alike. It did not really satisfy anyone, however, and only managed to hold off the terrible U.S. Civil War by a decade.
The Compromise of 1850 consisted of five laws, passed separately:
• California was added as a free state
• New Mexico and Utah were added as territories whose settlers would vote whether to allow slavery—the “popular sovereignty” approach
• Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico in exchange for $10 million
• Slave markets were outlawed in Washington, D.C., though slavery remained legal there
• The Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened
The following two newspaper articles indicate why the Compromise of 1850, including the admission of California into the Union, upset so many people. The first is from a Northern newspaper representing the abolitionist perspective, bitterly opposed to Texas and the payment it received, the possibility of slavery being allowed in New Mexico and Utah, the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, and the fact that California was not simply admitted into the Union as a Free State without having to be part of some “abominable” compromise.
The second article, from a Southern newspaper representing the Slave States and states’ rights perspective, is opposed to California’s entry as a Free State and furiously insists the North is coercing the South.
This editorial was published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on Sept. 9, 1850, the day California became a state:
Another Triumph for Slavery!
Freedom’s Banner trails in the dust at Washington! Slavery has achieved another triumph! Twenty-five thousand square miles of Free Soil has, in the last half of the 19th century, by an act of the American Congress, been surrendered to Slavery! And amid the clanking of newly forged fetters we hear the craven voice of exultation! Yes, Northern throats are hoarse with rejoicings at the victory obtained by Slavery over Freedom! Oh that some avenging angel would blot out the disgraceful record, that our posterity might be spared the mortification of blushing at the degeneracy of their Fathers.
Texas, from the moment that Tyler, Calhoun, Upshur, &c. conceived the project of Annexation, has been a root of evil and bitterness. In coming into the Union, Texas brought Debt, Slavery and War as its train-bearers. Texas, in and of itself, was a curse, for it added another Slave State to the Union. Independent of that, we were compelled to fight out its War; and now we have given Ten Millions of Dollars to appease the spirit of Rebellion!
This inglorious concession to Slavery does not, like others, owe its success alone to the fears of the North. Another element has been at work. Ten Millions of the worthless bonds of Texas were afloat. These bonds, in anticipation of this result, were purchased at from fifteen to thirty cents on the dollar. Gen. Taylor frequently said that Texas Bonds were far more to be dreaded than Nashville Conventions. Without the aid of this insidious but powerful argument, the Texas iniquity would not have been perpetrated.
It was the duty of Congress, holding the Freedom of New Mexico and California in Trust, to have protected both against Slavery. Upon the North especially was this duty sacredly enjoined. But the North has proved again recreant. Twenty-five thousand square miles of Territory have been cursed with Slavery; and $10,000,000 have been given to Texas speculators under a pretense of saving the Union.
But the “deed is done.” The responsibility of it is with those by whom it was consummated. We discharge a painful as well as a humiliating duty in saying that Slavery has extorted an unworthy concession from the North. We impugn not the motives of individual Members. We know men who voted for this bill whose personal integrity is above reproach or suspicion. But the influences and atmosphere which surrounded them were malign and deleterious. They yielded to a false alarm.
Our purpose, however, is more to thank and applaud those who have been faithful, than to reproach or reprove those who have faltered. With us, devotion to Free Soil has been a sentiment. All that we have said has been meant and felt. To unsay it now, because others have changed their views or their course, would be pusillanimous. We do not intend to give offence, but this Journal is pledged, hand and heart, to the Cause of Free Soil, and cost what it may, it shall speak the truth fearlessly.
There has been too much of aggression from Slavery, and more than enough of concession to that Power. We would not yield “the avoirdupois of a hair” to the threats of Disunionists. We would not surrender one Acre, one Rod, nor one Inch of Free Soil to the demands of Slavery. Before suffering that “peculiar Institution” to extend its Dominion or to augment its Power, beyond what it enjoys under the Constitution, we would join the issue they so often and so insultingly offer.
The Governors and Legislatures of the Whig States of the North stand solemnly committed against the Extension of Slavery. The Whig Party, in the Free States, through its Conventions and its Press, is as solemnly pledged to protect the Soil of New Mexico and California. Congress has given $10,000,000 to Texas ostensibly to satisfy its claim on New Mexico, in a bill which robs New Mexico of twenty-five thousand square miles of Territory!
Having believed firmly in the necessity, the expediency, and the restraining virtue of the Wilmot Proviso, we cannot, even in deference to the opinions of those who have modified their views, forego an expression of deep regret that the Proviso was not engrafted upon the bills giving Territorial Governments. Public men have acted, however, upon their convictions, and we leave them to the judgment of their constituents.
We are not among those who rejoice at the “settlement of the Slavery question” upon terms alike injurious and discreditable to Freedom. We would have stood, like adamant, upon the admission of California, and the organization of New Mexico, Oregon and Utah, with the Jeffersonian or Wilmot Prohibition of Slavery. We would have stood there, because it is right in the sight of Heaven and Earth, to uphold Freedom; and because it is wrong in the sight of God and of Man, to Extend Slavery.
This article was published by the Daily Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama) also on the date of California’s statehood, Sept. 9, 1850:
Southern Mass Meeting on Line Creek
On Thursday the 5th inst., the citizens of Montgomery and the adjoining counties, met on Line Creek, to discuss the causes of alienation unhappily existing between the different portions of this confederacy—to take counsel one with another, in reference to the best method of redressing the wrongs now being inflicted upon the honor and the interest of the people of the South by a dominant and tyrannical majority, and to pass resolutions declarative of their most solemn convictions upon the momentous questions now at issue.
…The following resolutions were reported by Dr. Peirce, chairman of the committee, and unanimously adopted:
Whereas a crisis has arisen in the political affairs of our country, which requires on the part of the South, firm resolves, and decisive action—we, a portion of the people of Alabama, without distinction of party, in primary convention, do put forth to the world our sentiments in the following resolutions:
…Resolved, That if the dominant abolition majority of the North continue their aggressions upon the Southern States, the latter must shortly determine for themselves the sad alternative of quietly passing under the yoke of their masters, or boldly withdrawing from a confederacy, alien to them in interests and feelings, and which uses the bond of union as a means of defrauding them of their most inestimable rights and privileges.
…Resolved, That, should the late California bill pass the House as well as the Senate of the United States, and become a law of the land, we request the Senators and Representatives from this State to retire from the arena of their disgrace to the State to which their chief allegiance is due, and inspirit us for the contest that is before us.
…Resolved, That the acceptance by the Congress of the United States of the California Constitution will form a memorable epoch in the decadency of republican principles in this country—a constitution framed by a band of adventurers from every portion of the world—without a regular census being taken—without a reservation of the public lands to the United States, of which the South forms a part—without any qualification of voters, and where the best information tells us not one in twenty of the voters came to the polls—that the usurping of territory stretching 1,000 miles to the Pacific, by a heterogenous mass of foreigners, and entirely excluding the slaveholders of the South from participating in the acquisitions made by their joint blood and treasure, should be resisted by the freemen of the South at any cost and by all the means in their power.
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