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The United States of America: A History
Book 3: Chapter VII - California


AMERICA exacted mercilessly the penalty which usually attends defeat. Mexico was to receive fifteen millions of dollars; but she ceded an enormous territory stretching westward from Texas to the Pacific.
One of the provinces which composed this magnificent prize was California. The slave-owners had gone to war with Mexico that they might gain territory which slavery should possess for ever. They sought to introduce California into the Union as a Slave State. But Providence interposed to shield her from a destiny so unhappy.

Just about the time that California became an American possession it was discovered that her soil was richly endowed with gold. On one of the tributaries of the Sacramento river an old settler was peacefully digging a trench—caring little, it may be supposed, about the change of citizenship which lie had undergone—not dreaming that the next stroke of his spade was to influence the history not merely of California but of the world. Among the sand which lie lifted were certain shining particles. His wondering eye considered them with attention. They were Gold! Gold was everywhere —in the soil, in the river-sand, in the mountain-rock; gold in dust, gold in pellets, gold in lumps! It was the land of old fairy tale, where wealth could be had by him who chose to stoop down and gather!

Fast as the mails could carry it the bewildering news thrilled the heart of America. To the energetic youth of the Northern States the charm was irresistible. It was now, indeed, a reproach to be poor, when it was so easy to be rich.

The journey to the land of promise was full of toil and danger. There were over two thousand miles of unexplored wilderness to traverse. There were mountain ranges to surmount, lofty and rugged as the Alps themselves. There were great desolate plains, unwatered and without vegetation. Indians, whose dispositions there was reason to question, beset the path. But danger was unconsidered. That season thirty thousand Americans crossed the plains, climbed the mountains, forded the streams, bore without shrinking all that want, exposure, and fatigue could inflict. Cholera broke out among them, and four thousand left their bones in the wilderness. The rest plodded on undismayed. Fifty thousand came by sea. From all countries they came—from quiet English villages, from the crowded cities of China. Before the year was out California had gained an addition of eighty thousand to her population.

These came mainly from the Northern States. They had no thought of suffering in their new home the evil institution of the South. They settled easily the constitution of their State, and California was received into the Union free from the taint of slavery.

It was no slight disappointment to the men of the South. They had urged on the war with Mexico in order to gain new Slave States, new votes in Congress, additional room for the spread of slavery. They had gained all the territory they hoped for, but this strange revelation of gold had peopled it from the North, and slavery was shut out for ever. To soothe their irritation, Henry Clay proposed a very black concession, under the disgrace of which America suffered for years in the estimation of all Christian nations. The South was angry, and hinted even then at secession. The North was prosperous. Her merchants were growing rich. Her farmers were rapidly over- spreading the country and subduing waste lands to the service of man. Every year saw vast accessions to her wealth. Her supreme desire was for quietness. In this frame of mind she assented to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. heretofore it had been lawful for the slave-owner to reclaim his slave who had escaped into a Free State; but although lawful it was in practice almost impossible. Now the officers of the Government, and all good citizens, were commanded to give to the pursuer all needful help. In certain cases Government was to defray the expense of restoring the slave to the plantation from which he had fled. In any trial arising under this law, the evidence of the slave himself was not to be received. The oath of his pursuer was almost decisive against him. Hundreds of Southern ruffians hastened to take vile advantage of this shameful law. They searched out coloured men in the Free States, and swore that they were escaped slaves. In too many instances they were successful, and many free negroes as well as escaped slaves were borne back to the miseries of slavery. The North erred grievously in consenting to a measure so base. It is just, however, to say, that although Northern politicians upheld it as a wise and necessary compromise, the Northern people in their hearts abhorred it. The law was so unpopular that its execution was resisted in several Northern cities, and it quickly passed into disuse.


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