California Statehood

The hero of the Battle of Buena Vista, General Zachary Taylor, replaced James K. Polk as President early in 1848. One of the principal issues facing the Taylor administration was the status of California. The conflict with Mexico had ended, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had been signed, but California was still headed by an American military officer administering the laws of Mexico. The discovery of gold early in 1848 resulted in a flood of immigrants, the sudden creation of enormous wealth, and a serious breakdown in public order. A succession of senior American military leaders stationed in California urged that a civilian government be established as quickly as possible.

President Taylor agreed with the need and advocated immediate statehood for California without going through a period of territorial status (the usual path to statehood). He stimulated a constitutional convention in Monterey in September 1849 which, among other things, called for immediate statehood free of slavery. The political situation, however, was complicated by several other factors not directly related to California. Among these were the status of other areas ceded to the United States by Mexico including Utah and New Mexico; boundary issues between New Mexico and Texas; and the issue of slavery in the United States. An extraordinarily complicated political situation existed in Washington D.C. with a very real danger of war between the North and the South.

In 1845 Texas had been admitted to the Union as a state that permitted slavery. The majority of southern political leaders wanted slavery to be permitted in the areas newly acquired from Mexico. Most northern political leaders opposed this and an increasing number advocated abolition of all slavery in all parts of the Union. Prior to the war with the United States, Mexico had, in 1829, outlawed slavery in an effort to discourage additional American settlement in Texas. (The law was not successfully enforced in Texas and did not address the peonage system that pervaded all of Mexico including California.) Northerners argued that it would be unjust to establish slavery in a society that had been without it. Southerners argued that they had provided the preponderance of manpower to conquer Mexico and should not be denied an opportunity to benefit from the conquest.

Politicians on both sides of the argument saw the eventual creation of a number of new states from the enormous area taken from Mexico. The balance of power between those advocating a way of life that included slavery and those who did not would be impacted by the decisions made regarding the former Mexican territory. Other important slavery issues that were on the table at the time included the status of slave markets in Washington D.C. and fugitive slave legislation. Ugly slave markets in the nation's capital were embarrassing to both southerners and northerners, but southerners worried that their removal would adversely impact the right to hold slaves in Washington D.C. In addition, fugitive slaves that made it to the North were not being returned to their southern masters. Southern political leaders demanded strong legislation that would remedy the situation.

The battle over these issues was fought out in Congress, where Whigs and Democrats were increasingly divided along North-South rather than party lines. President Taylor continued to demand California's immediate entry into the Union without addressing the other issues which were hanging fire. Congress refused to consider California in isolation and Taylor's political influence suffered dramatically. Early in 1850, Henry Clay, Senator from Kentucky, eventually formulated a compromise that would address all of the principal issues before the nation, but President Taylor came out in open opposition. Moderate politicians feared that even if Congress were to pass the Clay compromise there was a strong possibility that the President would veto it.

On July 9, 1850, President Taylor died from typhoid fever and was succeeded by his vice president, Millard Fillmore. President Fillmore was a supporter of the principal elements of the Clay compromise as were a number of prominent moderate senators including Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas. On August 1, 1850, the Senate passed the Utah bill, the first of a series of bills that addressed all of the major issues at hand. California's admission was one of the most hotly debated, but on August 13, 1850, it passed the Senate. The new Fugitive Slave Bill was the last to pass the Senate on August 19. The House of Representatives took up the first of the bills, the Texas-New Mexico Boundary Bill, on August 28 and passed it on September 6. the other bills, including the California Statehood Bill passed soon thereafter. By the efforts of Clay, Fillmore, Webster and Douglas, California became the 31st state (free of slavery) on September 9, 1850, and the war between the North and the South was postponed.

 

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