All posts by Keith Harris

Southern California and the Confederacy

HD_TheUnionisDissolvedYou hear tell from time to time from academic circles and elsewhere that the southern counties of the state of California leaned toward the southern states during the secession crisis and sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War. The logic is simple, really. 1) The 1860 voting returns clearly show that while the Republicans could claim California as a whole, the southern counties voted decidedly against Abraham Lincoln – and instead, returned a respectable vote for John C. Breckinridge – the state rights/Southern Democrat candidate. 2) Land holders, profiting from a labor system held over from the mission years that in many ways resembled southern chattel slavery, could relate to the southern master class and their efforts to keep their institutions intact in an independent nation.

While both of the points are unquestionably accurate, did they make Southern Californians rebels? I am not convinced.

I am beginning to sense a pattern forming as I read through much of the literature on Southern California during the 1850s. There is another possible reason why Southern Californians would have looked favorably on a state rights effort that had more to do with internal issues rather than national ones. Southern Californians had independence on the mind, as it were. Influential individuals recognized that Southern California was indeed a distinctive region and had been, for at least a few years since California gained admittance to the Union, been pushing for a separation from the northern part of the state (along the Tehachapi Range north of Santa Barbara). In fact, the issue was set for a vote and a petition to Congress –  and it looked as though Southern California was heading for statehood…until the Civil War broke out and put the issue off for a while.

Could Southern Californians (few that they were in 1860) have been localizing a national crisis to fuel a secession movement of their own? Perhaps. But I do not think that the region ever solidly backed the Confederacy or the Confederate War effort beyond a few isolated examples of rebel revelry. We’ll see. I am sure I will have much more to report on this subject as my research continues. N.B. The push for statehood never really regained the momentum it had lost in 1861 – but more on that later. Your thoughts are, as always, more than welcome.

With compliments,

Keith

An Island on the Land

en-carey-mcwilliamsFor my inaugural post, I thought it might be fun to take a little inspirational field trip to Echo Park to visit the former home of attorney/journalist/historian Carey McWilliams. It was not hard to find, I got the address from his Wiki page. And I am sure the current residents would be thrilled to know that their address is out there for anyone to see (then again, who is looking for McWilliams’s old house?). In 1946, McWilliams published an exceptional work on the history of Southern California called, oddly enough, Southern California: An Island on the Land. The subtitle he borrowed from Helen Hunt Jackson, the nineteenth-century novelist who created Ramona – a story that became among the most enduring Southern California legends. I am now elbow deep in McWilliams’s  Southern California. The book is both probing and insightful, despite a few tenuous presentist connections. For example, he compares the Franciscan Mission system to National Socialism. Of course, he was writing (presumably during and) on the heels of World War II, so the idea of totalitarian regimes would have been on his mind, to say the least. But as brutal as the Franciscans may have been, they were not Nazis. They came to Alta California to save souls, not eliminate a race of people. But my issue with McWilliams’s dubious comparison is just a quibble. I find the book extremely valuable for my purposes.

On the drive over to Casa McWilliams, I contemplated a number of things that might have inspired individuals from the Midwest and eastern states to head west. Economic opportunity, adventure, a salubrious climate. Each of these things was potentially a motivating factor. But the focus in McWilliams’s introduction is on an abstraction: the need to pursue a well-rounded life and to escape the drudgery of the ordinary.

Here it seems, is the place where harassed Americans come to recover the joy and serenity which their manner of life denies them elsewhere.

This makes sense – not only for those suffering troubles in the present but for those who had lived through them in the past. And it seems to me that the Civil War would be a striking example of trouble – perhaps, after a conflagration of such magnitude, one would want a fresh start. Perhaps. At least it is a question to consider at this point in the game.

The idea of simply looking for a better life – one of leisure and opportunity is certainly nothing new, but it is rarely qualified. The notion seems well worth pursuing. And so I will be combing the primary and secondary material looking for exactly this and other motivational factors as part grand project. Your comments and contributions are, as always, welcome.

With compliments,

Keith