Thursday, April 05, 2007

CWL --- A Close Run Thing: California, CSA

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War, Richards, Leonard L., Knopf Publishing, 304 pp., illus., maps, 2007.

Gold Rush! California, like Kansas in the 1850s, was caught between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. To migrating Southerners, the labor-intensive mines in the Sierra Nevada Mountains begged for slave labor. Southern slave holders, who did not migrate to California, viewed Californaia as a new market for slaves. The Mexican state of California became the U.S. state of California through intense political maneuvering, timely military presence, and impassioned hypocritical rhetoric. A 'free state' (wage labor as opposed to slave labor) California narrowly missed being divided, north to south, wage labor and slave labor.

Conversely, Northern migrants envisioned the building of ports which in turn would lead to extensive participation in the China trade. The struggle for California statehood, the divisions within the Democratic Party, the contentious spirit of the American (Know Nothing) Party, the demise of the Whig Party, and the explosive growth of the Republican Party is subperbly described by the author. Slanders, duels, law suits, graft, were a frequent occurrence. In an era when voters received paper ballots at home and then went to the polls, party organization was essential.

The author offers telling details within in the mural of the political, social and economic panorama of California. Richards opens the story with the murder of an Irish Catholic Democratic U.S. Senator and ends the book with the unmourned death of one of the conspirators 20 years later. In the middle of the work, Richards reveals that the senator predicted his own death within a next few months. Seamlessly moving from the Sierra Nevada goldfields to San Fransico, from Panama and to the halls of Congress, and then back again, Professor Richards tells a story of gold and railroads, Mexicans and Anglos, miners and politicians, frontier women and ballroom damsels.

Refreshingly, Richards draws his conclusions hestitantly. He offers no platitudes nor does he reveal an agenda. The reader draws his own conclusions and meanings regarding the Slave Power Conspiracy, Stephen Douglas' quest for a railroad for the West, James Buchanan's activism and paralysis, and John Fremont's reputation and his actual accomplishments. This reader realized how close California was to becoming North California and South California. How may have the Civil War turned out if the North had not received almost $3 million dollars a month during the Civil War from the California gold fields? How may have the war turned out if gold had been king and cotton had been queen of the South?

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