California’s statehood marked the beginning of the end of an era of lawlessness nearly unprecedented in American history.
But the heated debate over statehood in the U.S. Senate marked the origins of our most self-destructive war.
On Wednesday, Sept. 9, our Golden State celebrated its 165th birthday. The great seal of the state of California features an outline of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the image of a grizzly bear and the Roman goddess Minerva (Greek: Athena), born full grown from the mind of Jupiter.
California was born as a state without ever becoming a territory of the United States. From July 7, 1846, to Dec. 20, 1849, California was formally governed by the U.S. War Department.
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From 1846 to 1850, local government in San Luis Obispo was on a temporary basis, with ultimate authority resting in the hands of the War Department in Washington. During that same period, a major shift took place in the political and economic geography of America’s new possession on the Pacific shore.
Following the Gold Rush, what are now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties became a wild and remote portion of the state, avoided by most travelers and especially neglected by the San Francisco- and Mother Lode-dominated legislators in Sacramento. This remained true until after 1869.
Although California did not officially become a state until Sept. 9, 1850, the state constitution written at Monterey’s Colton Hall went into effect on Dec. 20, 1849. Only on
Feb. 18, 1850, did the new state Legislature create the first counties. San Luis Obispo was one of the 27 original counties with boundaries that are only slightly different from the present, enclosing 3,250 square miles.
Achieving statehood was vital to crime-infested parts of California, most especially the Central Coast, where the first mass murder in the territory occurred at Mission San Miguel on Dec. 5, 1848. Among the 11 victims were the son-in-law and daughter of Gen. Mariano
Vallejo, a “jefe politico” of Mexican California.
Mitigating against statehood was the issue of slavery. The republic of Mexico had banned “the peculiar institution” in 1829. Most Californians wanted a “free” state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and admission of Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848 kept numerical equality between free and slave states. California’s admission as a “free state” would upset that balance. To the dying senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, losing the richest of the former Mexican territories to abolitionists would be an intolerable defeat for the South. The debate in the Senate was violent. Mississippi Sen. Henry S. Foote drew a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.
After a nine-month debate, Sens. Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas worked out the Compromise of 1850. It left many less than happy. Its consequences included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act forbade the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence in a court of law. Courts throughout the United States were compelled to authorize the arrest of any person of color on the affidavit of a slave owner.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court handed down a decision denying the petition for freedom of a former slave named Dred Scott. The Fugitive Slave Act polarized Americans and led to the rebellion of the South. The Civil War followed. Nearly 700,000 Americans died.
The recent tragedy in a black church in Charleston, S.C., demonstrates that some of those issues remain unresolved. Our statehood in the Compromise of 1850 came at a great price.