In “Design for a Pacific Republic, 1843-62”, author Joseph Ellison concluded that remoteness and isolation were the root cause of four mid nineteenth century movements supporting California’s independence as a separate nation. I disagree with his conclusion and believe that the basis of California’s drive towards independence was founded upon economic independence, fostered by regional prosperity and self-confidence of the population in their proven self-sufficiency. While California’s isolation contributed to regional lack of confidence in United States’ ability to defend them against an enemy, the region’s prosperity in terms of agricultural and mineral resources, and the adventurous and independent nature of those pioneers who reached this continental frontier and prospered, were the root cause driving movements supporting establishment of a Pacific republic.
Pacific republic supporters felt secure in their drive for independence because of their success as pioneers, farmers, ranchers and miners. They envisioned their future as one of unlimited prosperity, potential and growth and in this were certainly correct. To get a feel for their determination and self-confidence, one must only contemplate that these were people who had crossed the North American continent prior to the first transcontinental railway in the 1860’s. During their journey, which would likely have taken months rather than days, they may have been attacked by wolves, hostile Indians, suffered extreme weather conditions and forded rivers without bridges (Stewart). In the process, they may have had to ward off hunger, while defending themselves from raiders of all kinds. Those who succeed in reaching the Pacific coast and prospered, earned their independent natures and confidence in a trial by fire.
In 1846, during the Bear Flag revolt in Sonoma, American Californians replaced Mexico’s flag with a famous bear flag that eventually became part of California’s state symbol. About three weeks later, the United States Mexican War broke out and the Bear flag was replaced by that of the US government. The force behind this revolt was fueled by a feeling that the Pacific coast was too remote to obtain effective support from the United States. Opposing this push for independence, Dr. J. Marsh believed that California would one day reach a point where it could function independently, but had not arrived there yet (Ellison 321).
During the period of 1846 to 1850, the point at which California became one of the United States, Californians did not take well to Union governance. They were used to having their own independence and found perceived military despotism to be annoying at best (Ellison 322). A Pacific News article in August of 1850 viewed a California republic as one which would become the richest in the world, because of her vast mineral resources. A strong, lasting and defensible government, faithful to freedom and equality would protect this new republic. It would be free of taxation from a distant power and capable of paying for its own expenses (Ellison 324).
From 1850 to 1860 the movement for a Pacific republic continued despite California’s admission into the Union. In 1851, a San Francisco paper expressed the opinion that the Union provided no benefit to this Pacific state. With California taxed at over $2 million dollars annually, California sustained an enormous debt paid for by state citizens without any reward provided in services. East and west coast perceptions were not in alignment. The east perceived of the west as costing too much and not worth the investment, failing to understand the cost of California’s operating expenses. The west coast perceived of their condition as one of a cash cow, milked by an indifferent and remote government (Ellison 325-327).
During the vigilance committee episode of San Francisco during 1856, Governor Johnson appealed to federal authorities for military help. Associates of the vigilance committee declared California to be sovereign, stating that any attempt at outside interference would result in a revolt of the State of California against the Union. Committee members argued that because California was geographically separated from the east, political separation also made sense. (Ellison 328-329).
The fourth phase of the Pacific republic movement began on the eve of the Civil War. Democrats of the radical wing opposed involvement in any part of the Civil War. In 1860, California’s Governor Weller prophesied that if the Civil War led to abolishment of the Union, California was become an independent nation. Citing valuable resources and a population of enterprising individuals, California senators indicated their preference for independence from the United States (Ellison 331).
In 1861, Congressman Scott reiterated, the financial ruin that would be brought through taxation, this time by the economic devastation of the civil war. He presented this as a primary reason for supporting California’s secession from the Union in the event that a division between North and South were to result from the conflict.
Throughout the period of 1843 to 1862, Californians did not view the Union as providing benefit for cost. They saw themselves correctly as extraordinarily independent, effective, and capable of governing their own affairs. Viewing their land as the most valuable, not just in the United States but in the entire world, they felt more than capable of economic independence. They viewed the United States as an economic liability, hungry for tax money and providing little to no return on investment. They had become part of a nation that was slow to admit them as a member state and slow to treat them as the valuable asset that they were.
- Ellison. Designs for a Pacific Republic, 1843-62. Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 319-342, Oregon Historical Society, Dec., 1930, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20610587, Accessed: 06-02-2017.
- Stewart. OVERLAND TRIP TO CALIFORNIA IN 1850. Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles. Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 176-185, (1901).