How war kept California united

Under CC license by Cranky Old Mission Guy http://www.flickr.com/photos/cranky_old_mission_guy/5685169092/

Libya, London, Egypt – the map of unrest and revolution around the world right now is vast. In Sudan, it led to the country separating in two. Now Jeff Stone, a county supervisor from Riverside, wants something similar to happen, right here in California.

NEWSCASTER: Stone wants to form a new state. He wants to call it South California. The new state would be made up of 13 counties, but would not include L.A. or Ventura counties. Stone says he wants succession [sic] from – quote – “the liberal arm of California.”

This may be a radical idea, but it’s hardly a new one, as KALW’s Steven Short tells us in this report.

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STEVEN SHORT: California – it’s the land of sun-filled beaches and atmospheric San Francisco fog, of fertile farmland and forbidding deserts. But political infighting could lead to a different vision of California. That’s what led Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone to propose sawing off the southern counties to make a new state.

JEFF STONE: This action was not made as a political stunt or a media statement. It was done on behalf of citizens that are taxed too much, and of businesses that are regulated too much and are fleeing the state.

Of course, this isn’t the first time someone has wanted Southern California to become its own state. As a matter of fact, Chuck Wollenberg, history professor at Berkeley City College, says the idea first arose shortly after California became the 31st state, in 1850. In those days, most of the population, along with the political power, was concentrated in the north, due to the Gold Rush. In the south...

CHUCK WOLLENBERG: One of their main grievances was the fact that much of the tax was a property tax. Miners, who had mining claims on public land, didn’t have to pay property tax. But the big landowners, the Californio rancheros in Southern California, were paying a huge part of the state budget – even though they represented a very small part of the population.

Those Californios, with their vast Spanish land grants awarded by Spain, naturally wanted to try to hold on to their power. So their leader in the state legislature, Andres Pico, proposed keeping the southern portion of the state autonomous, by making it a territory. It would be called Colorado, for the Colorado River.

WOLLENBERG: The state of Colorado didn’t exist at that time. And actually, the state legislature passed the measure: the governor signed it, there was a referendum in the southern part of the state, and the majority of voters supported it. Those were all steps that had to be taken.

So far, so good. But there was a snag in the final task to complete this quest. Now Congress had to approve it. And you know how difficult it is to get anything through Congress – then or now!  But there were some special circumstances at that particular time. We’re talking about 1859 to 1860….

WOLLENBERG: And by 1859 to 1860, the Civil War was coming; the secession of the South was coming. And so, Congress never approved that split of Southern California from the rest of the state.

Oh, the irony! The California Republic, which agreed to divide peacefully, was denied permission because the rest of the country was being pulled apart by war!

This was not only the first attempt at political divorce – it was also the most successful one. I mean, it actually passed the legislature!

Nowadays, we may think of north/south divisions as natural, but Professor Wollenberg says the most important division in recent years has been rural versus urban.

WOLLENBERG: It’s often the rural parts of the state that are feeling like they’re being left out, and wanting to separate from those more urban parts of the state. 

Not all of California’s proposed break-ups would have removed chunks and created stand-alone states. Probably the best-known attempt was in 1941, and it would have merged parts of California with pieces of its neighbor to the north. It would have been the State of Jefferson.

WOLLENBERG: The State of Jefferson would include three or four counties in the southernmost part of Oregon, and three or four counties in the northernmost part of California. And the idea was that both of those southern Oregon counties and those northern California counties felt that they were being completely ignored by the centers of power of their respective states.

They went so far as to design a state flag, and a state seal, containing two crosses on a golden circle. Wollenberg explains that the idea wasn’t religious. Instead, it sent this message:

WOLLENBERG: “We’ve been double-crossed, both by Oregon and by California.”

The circular golden background represented a gold miner’s pan, not a halo.

WOLLENBERG: At some point, some guys from Yreka established themselves as the State of Jefferson Border Patrol. They had their hunting rifles, and they’d stop cars, and would give them copies of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Jefferson.

That declaration reads, in part:

“This State has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941. Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.”

Patriotic Jeffersonians went so far as to name representatives for the new state legislature, and elect a governor. Newsreels show crowds of people in a big parade after the elections, holding signs representing their various counties. It probably took place on a Thursday.

But those newsreels never saw the light of day. Remember how that break-up in the 1850s was stopped by the Civil War? Well, those newsreels were filmed on December 4, 1941. Again, Chuck Wollenberg.

WOLLENBERG: About the time that they were going to play those newsreels – the next week, on December 7th – the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. World War II had begun. And the whole publicity went away, and the whole concept – at least the formal concept of establishing Jefferson – went away.

Once again, a national war kept our state intact!

WOLLENBERG: But it sort of lives on as a … people call it a State of Mind. You go up to Yreka, and there’s an historical society museum that has a lot of stuff about the State of Jefferson. The public radio station up there is called Jefferson Public Radio.

While Governor Jerry Brown’s office sums up Supervisor Stone’s current state divorce proceedings as “supremely ridiculous,” that’s not likely to stop future attempts. Two hundred twenty such proposals have been documented … so far.

But in all likelihood, it won’t happen. It can’t happen – short of total armed rebellion. Chuck Wollenberg explains why:

WOLLENBERG: It’s so difficult to actually do it, because you’d have to have the state legislature agree. You’d have to have a referendum of the people of the area involved agree. And then you’d have to have the U.S. Congress agree.

SHORT: And they can’t agree on anything!

WOLLENBERG: That’s right! (laughs)

Seriously, though, Congress has plenty to deal with these days, besides sub-dividing our state.

And you know how jealous the rest of the country can be of California? Just imagine if there were two of us!

In Berkeley – California! – I’m Steven Short, for Crosscurrents.