California’s Legislature Has Roots in Slavery. Are Lawmakers Able to Confront That?

Vassar has documented members such as State Senator William B. Norman, who brought an enslaved person from Mississippi to California, and Charles S. Fairfax, who traveled west from his family’s slave plantation in Virginia and eventually became Speaker of the State Assembly. The Marin County town where Fairfax built his mansion now bears his name.

In the 1850s, enslavers and their allies were part of the California legislature that took two dramatic measures in support of enslavement: passing the state’s Fugitive Slave Act and supporting the explosive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the federal law that allowed the extension of enslavement into the territories of slavery.

“We know it wasn’t always just a symbolic matter,” said Stacey Smith, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University who advises the California Reparations Task Force. “Certainly there were certain members of the state legislature and congressional delegation who had a direct interest in enslaving people in California and maintaining control over them.”

The federal Fugitive Slave Act, which required residents and law enforcement agencies in free states to assist in the capture and return of escaped enslaved people, was included in the agreement that brought California into the Union.

But federal law only dealt with enslaved persons escaping across state lines, and California’s enslavers had no legal recourse when their captives escaped within the new, free state. To address this, slavery legislators drafted the state’s Fugitive Slave Act, which would give enslavers a one-year window to recapture formerly enslaved people they had brought to California before statehood and forcibly take them out of the state and back to bring to the slave-owning states in the south. The Act, officially “an Act Concerning Refugees and Slaves Brought into this State prior to their Admission to the Union,” passed the Assembly in February 1852.

A bust of David Broderick, a California Senator in the 1850s known for his opposition to slavery, on display at the California State Library in Sacramento. Broderick was killed in a duel, allegedly because of his anti-slavery stance. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

In the Senate, where the proposal had been defeated the year before, chivalry had to overcome opposition from anti-slavery Democrats, most notably San Francisco Senator David Broderick. The bill was tabled by Estill in the State Senate. Lawmakers debated the bill for days before a final vote. Opponents concocted a series of obstacles, desperate to weaken the proposal with amendments, or at least find a majority willing to adjourn for the night. But Estill and his allies prevailed.

The Senate Journal of April 13, 1852 shows that after more than a dozen procedural votes, the bill passed 14 to 9 and was signed by Governor John Bigler. In 1853 and 1854, one-year extensions to the law were passed. Not included in the records is the fact that Estill fought to protect his property of the 15 people who toiled without compensation on his farm in Solano County, less than 50 miles across the Sacramento River.

“He didn’t just want to promote the ‘Southern values’ of protecting slavery and slave property in California,” said Smith, who chronicled the history of bonded labor in California in her book Freedom’s Frontier. “He had a direct, personal economic interest in a fugitive slave law that would allow him to bring enslaved people back to the Southern States if he decided he no longer wanted them to work in California.”

Smith found records of dozens of black Californians arrested under the law and detained by law enforcement in a state that promised freedom. Black people, some of whom came to California before racial terror, lived in fear of being arrested and extradited in the middle of the night.

“If you were brought in at the height of the gold rush, say early 1849 to mid 1850… [then] by March 1855, five, six years later, you could be enslaved and returned to the slave states under California law,” Smith said.

Pushing for the expansion of slavery

The national uproar over the Kansas-Nebraska Act turned the political tide against California’s fugitive slave law and made support for slavery a lost issue for the state’s Democrats.

The law allowed new territories to choose whether to allow slavery within their borders and replaced the generations-old Missouri Compromise, which outlawed slavery in new territories north of the 36th parallel 30′ and extending beyond the northern borders of Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas stretched. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was proof that Southerners were not only interested in preserving slavery, but in expanding it. The law enraged opponents of slavery, upset national and state party alliances, and was, in the words of historian James McPherson, “perhaps the single most important event that propelled the nation toward war.”

A few paragraphs of black typewritten text on a white background titled An advertisement for the sale of a black enslaved person originally published in the San Francisco Herald. (Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection via UC Riverside’s Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research)

Despite California’s official status as a free state, its representatives in Congress supported the law. And in the weeks leading up to the final vote, the state legislature passed a resolution in support of what was then called the “Nebraska Act.”

California’s statement of support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act was noncommittal but spoke volumes. The only other legislature in a free state to support the proposal, according to Smith, was Illinois — home of the bill’s drafter, US Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

“It’s quite unusual for a free state to approve the Kansas-Nebraska Act when many other people in the northern states — free states, especially in the Northeast — are just clamoring for the Kansas-Nebraska Act to be overthrown [law]’ said Smith.

California voter backlash to the Kansas-Nebraska Act helped form the California Republican Party and slowed momentum for further expansions of the state’s fugitive slave law. Pro-slavery legislators maintained control in Sacramento until the Civil War, sometimes resorting to violence to achieve their goals.

According to Smith, a pro-slavery lawmaker attacked an anti-slavery colleague with a stick on the Senate floor during debates to extend the Fugitive Slaves Act. And in 1859, Broderick, the prominent anti-slavery Democrat, was killed in a duel on the shores of Lake Merced in San Francisco by David Terry, a former Chivalry Supreme Court Justice. As he lay dying, Broderick reportedly said his anti-slavery stance drove his political opponents to violence.

Broderick quickly became a martyr for opponents of slavery, and his bust is still on display in the State Senate chambers. As the gold rush subsided, many of the Southerners in the California government left the state. Some, like Gwin, supported the Confederacy in the Civil War. The decades-long rule of chivalry and the agenda of its enslavers became a historical footnote.

reparation and atonement

“I think if I say something like ‘slavery in California,’ most people who went to school in California will mostly say, ‘Oh, the mission system,'” Smith said. “Just these other stories, especially about enslaved African Americans, are a lot less familiar to most Californians.”

Kamilah Moore, a reparations justice scholar who chairs the state’s reparations task force, said confrontation with the Legislature’s pro-slavery history should begin in the state’s K-12 schools. She said the task force would like to see a curriculum that recognizes and teaches California’s role in maintaining the institution of slavery.

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