The Fight for Slavery in California

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War

by Leonard L. Richards
Knopf, 290 pp., $25.00

The annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845 and the conquest of what became the American Southwest in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 reduced the size of Mexico by more than half and increased the size of the United States by a third. These acquisitions also reopened the vexed question of slavery’s expansion, which supposedly had been settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Three months into the Mexican War, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced his famous “Proviso” stipulating that in any territory acquired from Mexico “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory.”1 Almost unanimous support by Northern congressmen, Whig and Democrat alike, passed this resolution over the virtually unanimous opposition of representatives of both parties from the South. In the Senate, however, the equal representation of the fifteen slave states and fifteen free states enabled Southern senators to block Wilmot’s Proviso.

These events sounded an ominous knell for the future of the republic. Congressional votes normally divided along party lines, with Northern and Southern Democrats lining up together against Northern and Southern Whigs. The wrenching of this partisan pattern into a sectional split on the Wilmot Proviso foreshadowed the increasing polarization that finally plunged the nation into disunion and civil war fifteen years later.

It was all so unnecessary, according to historians whose interpretation of the Civil War’s causes once prevailed. With the expansion of the cotton frontier into eastern Texas in the 1830s, they maintained, slavery had reached the “natural limits” of its growth and could spread no farther into the arid and inhospitable Southwest.2 This Natural Limits thesis sustained an argument that the Civil War was a needless war, a “repressible conflict” brought on by self-serving Northern politicians who seized on the artificial issue of slavery’s expansion to vault into power by scaring Northern voters with false alarms about an aggressive “Slave Power.” Their self-righteous anti-Southern rhetoric finally goaded slave states into secession when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860.3

The Natural Limits thesis echoes the voices of antebellum politicians exasperated by antislavery claims that slaveholders intended to expand their “peculiar institution” into the territory taken from Mexico. This whole matter, insisted one Southern congressman, “related to an imaginary negro in an impossible place.”4 President James K. Polk, who presided over the Mexican War, wrote in his diary that the agitation about slavery’s expansion was “not only mischievous but wicked” because “there is no probability that any territory will ever be acquired from Mexico in which slavery could ever exist.”5 Senator Daniel Webster insisted that the arid climate would keep slavery out of these territories, so why insult the South by the Wilmot Proviso legislating exclusion? “I would not take pains to reaffirm an ordinance of nature,” said Webster, “nor to reenact the will of God.”6 Kentucky Governor John J. Crittenden maintained in 1848 that “the right to carry slaves to New Mexico or California is no very great matter…and the…

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