'Six Californias' Was Just One of Many Attempts to Break Up the State

Not So Much

Not So Much | Photo: kafka4prez/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Menlo Park billionaire Timothy Draper -- a venture capitalist with investments in Twitter and Skype among other companies -- was hoping to put a measure before the voters that would, if approved by Congress, dismember California into six mini-states. But it has failed. The proposition did not garner enough signatures for placement on the 2016 ballot, a spokesperson with the California Secretary of State told KCET.

Draper, the sponsor of the measure, presumably would've gotten his mini-state to be named Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley would have had to get in line, however. An existing state law -- the Pico Act of 1859 overwhelmingly approved by California voters -- already calls on Congress to divide California into a northern and southern state. (Conveniently, there is a ready-made line of division where the counties of San Bernardino, Kern, and San Luis Obispo begin.)

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The Civil War held up Congressional debate, but the 1859 vote -- duly certified by Governor Latham -- was deemed to be valid as late as 1880 when Governor Downey held that division only needed Congressional approval, and a year later when a convention of southern county officials meeting in Los Angeles reaffirmed the act and called on Congress to finally divvy up the state. Their call was repeated in 1888.

More or less serious efforts to draw California into two or three states have been mounted in the years since.

In fact, the breaking up California is California's oldest political dogma, going back well before the American occupation in 1846. And despite his billions, Draper didn't dream as big as some of his predecessors in reimagining California. They didn't want little states but a great nation -- El Estado Libre y Soberano de Alta California.

The Free and Sovereign State of Upper California would have been all of California. (Upper and lower in both the Spanish and Mexican periods distinguished Alta California from Baja California.)

Called into existence in 1836 by Juan Bautista Alvarado, its self-proclaimed governor, the ELSAC was intended to right abuses and oust corrupt officials imposed on Californians by the national government in Mexico City.

Unfortunately, the new nation had no solution to the north/south divisions that had already produced years of political turmoil in California. The government of the Free State met in Monterey, but the southerners wanted it in Los Angeles. Rather than compromise, the Los Angeles contingent repudiated the ELSAC and declared its loyalty to the government in Mexico City.

A little war broke out between the forces of the "uppers" (the arribaños from Monterey) and "lowers" (the abajeños of Los Angeles). In the end, nobody was injured, and Los Angeles capitulated. But not for long.

New armed forces were raised in both the north and south. New political alliances were made and broken and remade. Another governor appointed by Mexico City was deposed. More officials were appointed, sometimes switching sides. Another war of north and south ensued with mini-battles in which one southerner was killed.

When the war ended, everyone got something out of the brief existence of the Free State. Land and money came to everyone who had the right connections. The southerners got some revenge for the surrender of Los Angeles. And Alvarado, who had abandoned the Free State he had proclaimed, made a deal with Mexico City that had him named as governor of a reunited California.

Busting up the state -- or making it free and sovereign -- slumbered as a political ideal. But not for long.

In 1846, even as an American naval flotilla neared the California coast, Governor Pio Pico rode north from Los Angeles with another southern army to take back the records and receipts of the territorial government that were being held by defiant northerners. (For his part, Governor Pico had been attempting for some time to induce the British government to take on an independent California as a protectorate.)

But Pico never made it to Monterey. The Mexican-American War reached Monterey before Pico did.

If insurrection, political connivance, intrigue, legislation, popular vote, and heated passion haven't broken up California in 250 years, I never saw how even an Internet billionaire could succeed.

But trying -- always trying -- is the Californian way.

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