LEARNING IS MY BUSINESS
This is a blog of educational ideas, resources, and reflections. I am a teacher and a coach in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada just outside of Yosemite National Park. Most of the time I'm a husband and father who is trying to stay ahead of the weeds and chores.
Abraham Lincoln has always been taught from a Northern and Southern perspective and NOT a Western or California perspective. The major conflicts of the 1850’s played out with the political players from those areas and of course, that is where the killing and dying of the Civil War occurred during the early 1860’s. To understand Lincoln from California one needs to see how California had its own sectional battle with Southerners and Northerners vying for power to the point where California was clearly a slave state, but had outlawed slavery. It was a slave state without the slaves. The best way to understand this dichotomy is to examine the roots and policies of three of its major politicians, William M. Gwin, David S. Terry, and David C. Broderick; and then compare them to Lincoln. Through these men, the national struggles that Lincoln dealt with can be seen clearly through a California perspective.
When California entered the Union on September 7, 1850, it was a free state but was dominated by the pro-South and pro-slavery Chivalry Wing of the California Democratic Party. The Chivs were led by Southerners like United States Senator William Gwin and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, David Terry, who hailed from Mississippi and Texas respectively and came separately to California in 1849 to strike it rich in the goldfields and perhaps make a political mark as well. Slavery was banned however, because the miners in the diggings in the Sierra Nevada were worried about unfair competition from slaveowners and slaves. They were more worried about free labor than freeing slaves.
Broderick on the other hand also came to California in 1849 as yes, all three men were 49ers, but he fled from New York City as he had run afoul of the Tammany Hall machine and was looking for a new start. He had been a stonemason and a firefighter in New York and once his political fortunes turned south, Broderick headed West. Like Gwin, Broderick did not dig for gold but got himself quickly and deeply involved in California politics as a Free Soil Democrat. He saw that San Francisco was politically organized like New York with fire companies acting as political clubs. He also knew a political truism that money was the “mother’s milk of politics” and found his way deep into San Francisco’s politics. (Richards, Ch 1)
Over the decade of the 1850’s, political events like the rise of the Chivs seemed to be forcing California into greater alliance with the South that is, however, until the Terry-Broderick Duel in 1859, and the onset of the Civil War in 1861, permanently pushed California into Lincoln’s camp and solidly into the Union.
Once firmly in the Union, Lincoln reached back to his days as a Whig as he rewarded California with the Western terminus of the Pacific Railroad, a bounty of homesteaders with the Homestead Act, and the signing of the Yosemite Grant all during the Civil War.
William Gwin and David Terry made their way to California for different reasons and by different modes, but they both made their mark on California politics as members of the Chivs. Gwin had come to California from Mississippi after losing a Senate seat to Jefferson Davis. He quickly realized that his political career would fare better in California and headed West.
Terry came from Texas looking to strike it rich, but did not and quickly settled in as a lawyer in Stockton.
Gwin after a few early setbacks as a newcomer, gained a reputation as a moderate as he took a clear stand against corporations and state debt (Richards, Ch 2) even though it was widely known that he owned 200 slaves on a plantation back in Mississippi (Richards, Ch 2). He managed to get himself elected Senator and helped present California’s petition for statehood and its constitution in 1850 in Washington, DC.
Once Gwin got to Washington, he faithfully supported the South as he represented California in the Senate for nine of its first eleven years in the Union. He made sure that in 1852, John B. Weller was elected as California’s other Senator and for the 1850’s, “in North-South struggles, Weller and Gwin might as well have been representing Mississippi.” They both toed the Southern line in all the major questions as they both supported the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, stood behind the Dred Scott decision, and backed President James Buchanan’s scheme to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state. (Richards, Ch 4)
Terry on the other hand, never tempered his politics and made a name for himself in state politics. However, he was an even more rabid supporter of slavery and the South than Gwin. Fellow California Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field said Terry had “the virtues and prejudices of men of the extreme South.” (Richards, Epilogue)
He would do whatever it took to bring slavery to California. He went so far as to pledge to his first wife that “he was determined ‘to change the Constitution of the state by striking out that clause prohibiting slavery… or, failing in that, divide the state and thus open a portion of California to Southerners and their property.’” (Richards, Prologue)
Broderick, meanwhile, had also made a fortune in San Francisco real estate and had a firm grip on San Francisco politics. This is where he and the Chivs began to battle. As the Chivs became more and more oriented toward the South, they and Broderick began to emulate the sectional struggles in the East.
As abolitionism began to grow in the United States through the 1850’s as crisis followed crisis, like the debates over the Fugitive Slave Act, Kansas-Nebraska, Dred Scott, and Bleeding Kansas, Abraham Lincoln became more publicly open about his feelings on slavery. This can be most clearly seen through his House Divided Speech in 1858, where he famously said,
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved---I do not expect the house to fall---but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing, or all the other. (Lincoln, House)
California was still battling over slavery with the Chivs even going so far as to slur a slave holding Southern candidate for Governor, Edward Stanly, as a “nigger-loving abolitionist.” (Richards, Ch 6) On the other side were those who were morally and politically opposed to slavery like William Shannon, Elisha Crosby and David Broderick.
During California’s constitutional convention in 1850, Shannon and Crosby had worked to make California a free state. Shannon had seen slavery during his time in the US Army and he hated what he had seen. Shannon had proposed California’s anti-slavery clause, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in the State.” (Richards, Ch 3)
Coincidentally, President Zachary Taylor, although a slaveholder, had sent an emissary to make California a free state to avoid greater political haggling over slavery.
Gwin politically read the tea leaves and he too supported the anti-slavery clause. Gwin had seen how the gold country could be “worked efficiently by slave labor.” He explained to some pro-slave men, “(the miners) do not wish to see the slaves of some wealthy planter brought there and put in healthy competition with their labor side by side.” Through a mix of morality, politics, and economics, California’s constitution would be anti-slave. (Richards, Ch 3)
On another front that paralleled the East, California was dealing with a vestige of Spanish and Mexican rule, which was the Indian apprenticeship program. As California entered the Union as a free state, its legislators were writing a law to continue the practice of keeping Native Americans as slaves. Labor had become so scarce with the huge influx of miners and the rush of workers from other professions to the goldfields, that lawmakers saw the need to maintain the old custom.
Natives were forced into as one Democrat argued, “A ‘general system of peonage or apprenticeship’ (that) was the only way to quell Indian wars. A stint of involuntary labor would civilize Indians, establish them in ‘permanent and comfortable homes,’ and provide white settlers with ‘profitable and convenient servants.’” (Smith) As California formally outlawed African slavery, it codified a system where abuses of slave trading and “baby hunting” existed alongside stories of unprosecuted deaths of Native children.
California evolved from this mix of attitudes against slavery to one where it would barely deliver the state to Lincoln in the 1860 election, to being firmly Unionist to finally begin to emancipate its Native American apprentices by the middle of the Civil War. The change came quickly as David Terry killed David Broderick in a duel, Lincoln barely won the state in the 1860 election, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, and Lincoln emancipated the slaves.
In 1859, the war of heated words broke into violence as the Chivs finally grew too tired of the dogged resistance of Broderick to their Southern leaning schemes. Broderick and Gwin had campaigned together as Broderick had challenged Gwin to meet face to face. As Broderick was not one to duck a fight whether that be legislative or physical, soon he and Terry traded words after a particularly tense set of speeches. Terry had slurred Broderick by intimating that instead of following Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, he was “‘under the banner of the black Douglass,’ Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist.” (Richards, Ch 8)
As the custom of the times dictated, Terry challenged, Broderick accepted, the seconds met, and the duel was commenced. Terry killed Broderick and it seemed that the Chivs could move forward unimpeded by any criticism let alone Broderick’s. However, the backlash began immediately as many saw the duel as political murder. Broderick’s words were reported as, “I die because I was opposed to a corrupt administration and the extension of slavery.” (Richards, Ch 8)
Between the duel and the presidential election of 1860, Chiv popularity dwindled. At the polls in November of 1860, the four way vote was won by Lincoln barely winning out over Douglas by 614 votes.
Once the war broke out, Unionists became ascendent as they blamed the Southerners for starting the war by firing on Fort Sumter. As the war progressed, many of the Chivs left the state to fight for the Confederacy as Terry earned a commission as a brigadier general and Gwin went back to Mississippi and worked as a Confederate emissary to France and Mexico. (Richards, Epilogue)
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. In the next few months, the now-Republican run California legislature moved to abolish Indian servitude but still held on to the ideas of civilizing the Natives and thus the move was incomplete.
“By 1867, one Republican agent declared that ‘the hoe and the broadaxe will sooner civilize and Christianize than the spelling book and the Bible.’ He advocated forcing Indians to work until they had been ‘humanized by systematic labor.’” (Smith) Yes, California had followed Lincoln’s lead and had moved toward emancipation of the Indian apprentices, but could not move beyond the ideas of the Natives needing civilizing and thus started a whole other brutal and inhuman chapter in American history.
As the war ground on, Lincoln reached back to his days as a Whig politician as California was rewarded for its loyalty to the Union with internal improvements. Lincoln made sure that the Pacific Railroad ran on the central route and had its western terminus in Sacramento. He purposely took advantage to the lack of Southern legislators during the war to get the railroad on the route that would be to the greatest Northern advantage while also benefitting California.
He also passed the Homestead Act , which helped settle the midwest and the far west and again benefitted California. The act granted over 10 million acres in California to over 66,000 homesteaders mostly over the 50 years following the Civil War.(Abraham)
Finally, in 1864, Lincoln rewarded California with the Yosemite Grant which was, “the first parkland the federal government ever set aside for preservation and public use.” Yosemite set the example for Yellowstone, which was named a National Park in 1872, while Yosemite became a National Park in 1890. (Glass)
In the end, we can understand Lincoln and the struggles of the 1850’s more clearly through California’s own political battles. In its first 15 years of statehood California evolved from a slave sympathizing state with miners who feared competition from slaves in the goldfields to a state that had moved toward abolishing its own form of Indian slavery after having slightly voted for Lincoln in the 1860 election and solidly aligning itself with the Union at the outset of the war. Through the battles of William Gwin, David Terry, and David Broderick alongside the move to make California a free state, to the tribulations of the California Indians, one can see Lincoln in greater clarity as his struggles can be made more local and understandable.
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If we are to understand Abraham Lincoln from our perspective of California, we need to examine his Speech on War with Mexico, which was his most noteworthy act during his one term in Congress.
His speech was memorable but ineffective as Lincoln was suspicious and harshly critical of President James K. Polk’s justifications for the US entry into the war. Seemingly the war was started over a border dispute between Mexico and Texas, however, the real prize of the war was the Golden State.
California was the jewel coveted by the Manifest Destiny movement and the great reward of the Mexican War.
Lincoln had supported a resolution that criticized the constitutionality and necessity of the war while he also had proposed what became known as his “Spot Resolution” to question the President’s claim of the attack that had pushed the US into war with Mexico.
Lincoln’s argument centered around two main ideas, the President’s seemingly constant attempts at gaining support and his lack of factual evidence. Lincoln, however, also took his speech a step or two further as he made a number of personal attacks against the President that stand out from his other speeches in their vitriol. In fact, that is what modern historians note most about his criticism.
As it was, the speech came to nothing as the President paid no attention and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was concluded a few weeks later and California became American territory.
Lincoln ostensibly gave his speech in support of his Spot Resolution in which he questioned whether the spot where the bloodshed that precipitated the war had actually occurred on American soil as the president had claimed.
He listed out eight different questions “intended to draw the President out” and have him explain exactly where the spot was and how it was that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil” as Polk had said they had. (Protest) Lincoln’s interrogatories were looking to figure out how territory Lincoln felt was disputed could be claimed by the President as unequivocally American land.
He asked how that land had been connected to Spain, Mexico, and/or Texas, how it had been settled, which country had jurisdiction, how the people who lived in the area reacted to the different armies, and why that American force was in the area. (Protest)
He felt this type of interrogation was needed to clearly justify the spending of American blood and treasure to get California. The fine toothed comb with which Lincoln approached Polk’s reasoning for the war, presents one with insight into Lincoln’s understanding of how a President and his party should approach prosecuting a war. Once he was elected to the Congress, Lincoln began researching and questioning the Mexican War and he realized that President Polk’s decisions were not grounded in rock solid facts and were more like what he would like to have happened.
Polk and the Democrats on the other hand, had been elected on a wave of Manifest Destiny.
Lincoln’s speech implied that they wanted the facts to fit the war. They wanted to get California. They tried to buy it. Once they were refused, they knew they needed to fight to get it. Then, they just needed an excuse to fight a war. They had their war when Mexicans attacked American troops in disputed land between the Rio Nueces and Rio Grande. Most of the American people and politicians were happy to take the president at his word as they also wanted to get California and achieve Manifest Destiny.
Lincoln felt that Polk was supporting the war against Mexico with arguments and not facts and that Polk should hold himself to the standard of George Washington and answer the questions unequivocally. As Lincoln said, “...a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion---no equivocation.” Lincoln said that if Polk can not answer in this manner, Lincoln would know that Polk had realized that he was “in the wrong.”
As with most Americans, Lincoln said he would have been willing to take the President at his word. He explained that he had hoped to reserve his criticism of the justification for the war until after the hostilities “as good citizens and patriots” would. He pointed to Democratic former president Martin Van Buren as an ally of the President who was doing the same. However, the President and his fellow Democrats kept pushing every vote on supplies as an endorsement for the war. Lincoln showed how they twisted the vote tallies to show support for the war was stronger than it really was.
The real support was for the American war effort and American troops as opposed to the war itself. As Lincoln said, Polk was trying “to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth.” (Speech) Again, Lincoln was implying that Polk was twisting the facts to fit his goals.
When Lincoln’s speech is read, one can easily agree with modern historians who criticize Lincoln’s speech for being out of touch with the American people and overly personal and harsh toward President Polk as Doris Kearns Goodwin has described it. Michael Burlingame also saw Lincoln’s speech as off base as he felt it was overly political and he felt that a passage on the revolutionary history of the territories of Mexico and Texas would come back to haunt him during the run up to the Civil War. (Burlingame) William Miller on the other hand lauded Lincoln for his ardor in making the case against the legitimacy of the war’s beginning after criticizing Lincoln’s tone as being “rather personal and nasty about Polk in a quite un-Lincolnian way.” (Miller) Again, Lincoln’s speech was sharply critical but in the end ineffectual After he explained his reasons for proposing his resolution and criticizing the war and the President, Lincoln took off the gloves and began to hit the Polk administration with bare knuckles on an issue that was overwhelmingly popular in the United States. He questioned both the President’s veracity and perhaps even his sanity as he read through a list of different reasons that had been used by the Administration for the war. “How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream, is the whole war part of his late message!” (Speech)
He finally finished his speech as he felt that the President was confused, “He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!” (Speech) The level of personal attack illustrated how strongly he felt Polk had not met the standard of explanation and thus the war and the President were wrong.
At the time, Lincoln’s speech made little lasting impression as his resolutions were not voted on by the House and the war was prosecuted for a few more weeks and Lincoln as he had promised did not seek a second term. Modern historians agree. However, he would become president and would lead the United States through the Civil War and gain a reputation as the best president in its history. This speech is significant when one views how Lincoln attacked Polk’s inability to factually justify how the war began and then used much more meticulous processes in making and justifying major decisions during the Civil War.
Burlingame, Michael. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
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Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln, Speech in United States House of Representatives: The War with Mexico, January 12, 1848." House Divided. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864." House Divided. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Miller, Willaim Lee. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
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