Sunday, July 29, 2007

Richards: "The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War"

[The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards (Knopf, 2007) Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Page total=296. ISBN:9780307265203 $25]

With this book, Leonard Richards gives us an overview of California's role in the emerging sectional conflict of the 1840s and 1850s. Bracketed by a recounting of the famous Broderick-Terry duel, the narrative is quick moving, darting back and forth between state and national political issues and figures. It begins by briefly retelling the story of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and the mass international migration to the gold fields. The author's discussion of the technology involved in the mineral extraction was interesting, especially in the recounting of efforts to preserve individual claims and resist industrial and corporate interests. However, once the "easy" pickings were made (a very brief period), the capital required to extract the gold was beyond the means of individual miners.

Although there was little doubt California would be a free state (as a whole, the miners were decidedly free labor advocates), powerful political figures like Senator William Gwin cultivated significant pro-Southern interests in the state. Richards credits the riches of California for the impetus to build a transcontinental railroad, leading to the inevitable heated disputes over the merits of a southern vs. northern route. Although clearly futile, effort was also made by pro-Southern politicians (with the support of influential Mexican landowners in Southern California) to divide the state in half. Unfortunately, in-depth analysis of the state's various ethnic groups as political forces is largely unexplored.

The state's admission as a free state also directly led to renewed Southern pressure to annex Cuba (either through purchase or conquest) or conquer territory in Central America for the expansion of slavery. The various filibustering exploits of William Walker are discussed, including his final disaster in Nicaragua. Interestingly, Richards merits the efforts of Cornelius Vanderbilt as critical to Walker's downfall. It's a fascinating side story. What is missing is the recognition that expansion into the Carribean and Latin America was an extremely controversial position among Southerners, a point wonderfully illustrated by William Freehling in his recent book The Road to Disunion (vol. 2) .

In the end, Richards perhaps devotes too much space to broadly national issues like the Kansas-Nebraska Act and "Bleeding Kansas". These subjects have been covered deeply and well by other authors, and while they provide needed context to the issues raised by California statehood and economic clout, their extensive coverage relegates the state to the shadows for large stretches of the book's middle. California's election of 1860, secession efforts, and the outbreak of civil war are only briefly covered in the epilogue. On the other hand, on this point of criticism I may be projecting my own desire for a more narrowly focused study rather than viewing the book on the author's terms. Richards's study of how California fed the flames of sectional conflict is painted with the broad brush strokes of popular history. It's a familiar story for sure, but it is written from a mostly interesting and often fresh 'west coast' perspective.


  1. The book like clarity of direction and a consistent thesis. This is a little book that tried to cover to much. Jesse


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