Almost unnoticed in the East during the presidential campaign, another dramatic event of 1848 presaged further strains on the two-party system. Workers constructing a sawmill for John Sutter near Sacramento in January discovered flecks of gold in the river bed. Despite Sutter's attempt to keep the news quiet, word spread to San Francisco. Gold fever turned the port into a ghost town by June as the population headed for the Sierra foothills. In August the news reached the Atlantic coast, where it encountered skepticism from a public surfeited with fabulous tales from the West. But in December the whole country took notice when Polk's last annual message to Congress included a reference to the "extraordinary" finds in California. As if on cue, a special agent from the gold fields arrived in Washington two days later with a tea caddy containing 320 ounces of pure gold. Doubt disappeared; everyone became a true believer; many dreamed of striking it rich; and a hundred thousand of them headed West. The trickle of migrants to California during the previous decade became a flood in the great gold rush of '49, soon chronicled in song and story and ultimately transmuted into miles of Hollywood celluloid. Some eighty thousand of these Forty-niners actually reached California during that first year. Thousands of others died on the way, many from a cholera epidemic. A few of the Forty-niners struck it rich; but toil, hardship, and disappointment became the lot of most. Yet still they came, until by the census year of 1850 California had a larger population than Delaware or Florida. The territory's quest to become the thirty-first state sparked a renewed sectional crisis back East.

What the hell-roaring mining camps needed most was law and order. At first each camp elected its own officials and enforced a rough justice. But this was scarcely adequate for a large region with a mostly male population "from every hole and corner of the world" quick to violate or defend personal rights with revolver or hangman's rope. A few companies of the army provided the only semblance of national authority in

35. Sumner to Salmon P. Chase, Nov. 16, 1848, Chase Papers, Library of Congress; Preston King to Sumner, Dec. 25, 1848, Sumner Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

California. But the soldiers proved to be a weak reed, for the lure of gold caused many of them to desert. California needed a territorial government. So did New Mexico with its substantial Hispanic and Indian population and its growing Mormon settlement next to the Great Salt Lake. In December 1848, President Polk urged the lame-duck Congress to create territorial governments for California and New Mexico. To resolve the vexing slavery question, Polk recommended extension of the 36° 30' line to the Pacific.36

But Congress would have none of that. During the short session that expired on March 4 fistfights flared in both Houses, southern members shouted threats of secession, and no territorial legislation could command a majority. In the House, northern congressmen reaffirmed the Wilmot Proviso, drafted a territorial bill for California that excluded slavery, passed a resolution calling for abolition of the slave trade within the District of Columbia, and even considered a bill to abolish slavery itself in the capital. These actions enraged southerners, who used their power in the Senate to quash them all.

A southern caucus asked Calhoun to draft an "Address" setting forth the section's position on these iniquities. The South Carolinian readily complied, sensing a renewed opportunity to create the Southern Rights party he had long hoped for. Rehearsing a long list of northern "aggressions"—including the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, state personal liberty laws that blocked recovery of fugitive slaves, and the Wilmot Proviso—the Address reiterated Calhoun's doctrine of the constitutional right to take slaves into all territories, reminded southerners that their "property, prosperity, equality, liberty, and safety" were at stake, and warned that the South might secede if her rights were not protected.37

But Calhoun's heavy artillery misfired. Although forty-six of the seventy-three southern Democrats in Congress signed his Address, only two of forty-eight Whigs did so. Having just won the presidency, southern Whigs did not want to undercut their party before Taylor even took office. "We do not expect an administration which we have brought into power [to]

36. The quotation is from Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier 1830-1860

(New York, 1956). This book contains a fine account of the California gold rush and related matters.

37. Richard Cralle, ed., The Works of John C. Calhoun, 6 vols. (New York, 1854-55), VI, 285-313.

do any act or permit any act to be done [against] our safety," explained Robert Toombs. "We feel secure under General Taylor," added Alexander Stephens.38

So much greater the shock, then, when they discovered Taylor to be a free-soil wolf in the clothing of a state's rights sheep. Like a good military commander, Taylor planned to break the slavery stalemate by a flank attack to bypass the territorial stage and admit California and New Mexico directly as states. But this would produce two more free states. Under Mexican law, slavery had been illegal in these regions. Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery "an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity." California and New Mexico would tip the Senate balance against the South, perhaps irrevocably. "For the first time," said Senator Jefferson Davis of Missisippi, "we are about permanently to destroy the balance of power between the sections." This was nothing less than a "plan of concealing the Wilmot Proviso under a so-called state constitution."39 It raised "a point of honor," according to other southern Democrats, who vowed never to "consent to be thus degraded and enslaved" by such a "monstrous trick and injustice."40

But Taylor went right ahead. He sent agents to Monterey and Santa Fe to urge settlers to adopt state constitutions and apply for admission. Californians had begun this process even before Taylor's emissary arrived. In October 1849 they approved a free-state constitution and in November elected a governor and legislature that petitioned Congress for statehood. New Mexico was slower to act. Few English-speaking citizens lived in this huge region except the Latter-day Saints at Salt Lake—and their relations with the government were tense. Moreover, Texas claimed half of the present-day state of New Mexico and part of Colorado. This border dispute would have to be settled before statehood for New Mexico could be considered.

A free California might not have raised southern hackles so much

38. Toombs to John J. Crittenden, Jan. 22, 1849, Stephens to Crittenden, Jan. 17,

1849, quoted in Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery, 271.

39. Nevins, Ordeal, I, 22; CG, 31 Cong., 1 Sess., Appendix, 1533; Davis to W. R.

Cannon, Jan. 8, 1850, Civil War Collection, Henry E. Huntington Library.

40. Quotations from Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York, 1973),

245; Fehrenbacher, The South and Three Sectional Crises, 40; Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery, 278.

had not other developments caused southerners to view Taylor as a traitor to his class. Forty years in the army had given old Rough and Ready a national rather than sectional perspective. He hoped to strengthen the Whig party by winning Free Soilers back into its ranks. In August 1849 the president told a Pennsylvania audience that "the people of the North need have no apprehension of the further extension of slavery."41 Having pledged not to veto legislation on this subject, Taylor informed an appalled Robert Toombs that he meant what he said even if Congress saw fit to pass the Wilmot Proviso. Worst of all, Senator Seward became a presidential friend and adviser. Publicity about all of this buffeted southern Whigs, who took a beating in off-year state elections during 1849. "The slavery question, wrote a Georgian, "is the only question which in the least affects the results of the elections." Having "utterly abandoned the South" and "estranged the whole Whig party" there, Taylor's actions dangerously shortened southern tempers.42

Tension thickened when Congress met in December 1849. Taylor's coattails had not been long enough to carry Whigs into control of either House.43 Twelve Free Soilers held the balance between 112 Democrats and 105 Whigs in the lower House. The Democratic candidate for speaker was Howell Cobb, a genial moderate from Georgia. The Whig candidate was Robert Winthrop of Massachusetts, a Cotton Whig who had served as speaker in the previous Congress. Several Democrats refused to support Cobb, while Free Soilers of Whig background would not vote for Winthrop despite his earlier support of the Wilmot Proviso. More ominously, a half-dozen southern Whigs led by Stephens and Toombs opposed Winthrop because of that action and also because the Whig caucus refused to reject the Proviso. "I [shall] hold no connection with a party that did not disconnect itself from those aggressive abolition movements," declared Stephens. To resist "the dictation of Northern

41. Potter, Impending Crisis, 87.

42. Nevins, Ordeal, I, 241-42; Cooper, The South and the Politics of Slavery, 280,

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