Can California Gold Save the Union Again?

Financing blue waves has been part of the state’s history for 160 years

When it comes to modern political fundraising, California is well-known as the golden touch. That’s particularly true for Democratic candidates in the age of resistance against Trump. In 2018, for example, the river of California cash flowing to Democratic office seekers around the country topped $300 million — a first place finish among all 50 states. In the presidential year of 2016, the figure was even higher: $358 million.

Yet California’s blue-wave financing is hardly new. Nearly 160 years ago, the blue-clad armies of the Union slogged to victory in the American Civil War thanks, in part, to the mineral wealth of the Sierra Nevada.

California’s role in helping to save the Union has long been downplayed. Admitted to the Union as a free state as part of the Compromise of 1850, California was far removed from the bloody battlefields and political intrigues that characterize Civil War narratives. California’s participation — from regiments that fought at Gettysburg to a military expedition that pushed Confederate forces out of Arizona and New Mexico — is treated as a sidebar oddity. Its place in financing the war is barely mentioned at all.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant knew better. “I don’t know what we could do in this great national emergency, were it not for gold sent from California,” he reportedly observed. Just how much California gold was actually sent east is unclear, although estimates range from $180-$200 million, equal to about $3.5 billion today. At the height of the conflict, ships laden with one to three million dollars-worth of gold and silver coins minted in San Francisco were leaving the Golden Gate three times per month. Given that the Union war effort cost an estimated $71 billion in today’s money, California coinage might seem, while important, not pivotal. Consider, though, the psychological effects of a steady and reliable stream of gold bullion on popular confidence in the North. Between 1861 and 1863, every economic norm was being overturned. First came the sale of government bonds, then a new national tax and higher tariffs, followed by the introduction of a new paper currency, the greenback, which was not backed by gold. This is to say nothing of rampant inflation or the emotional toll of the war’s staggering casualty rate.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who’d long fantasized about a pro-slavery, Western empire anchored in Arizona, certainly understood how valuable California gold was to the Union war effort. The Confederate states were gold-poor by comparison with a shrinking reserve of only $27 million (equal to $785 million today) when the Civil War started. Worse, the Union blockade of Confederate ports was strangling the South’s economy. No wonder the secessionists set their sights on California’s gold fields and its open sea lanes. Indeed, the Confederate foray into Arizona was presumably the first step of a larger expedition towards Sacramento.

Davis likely imagined that his Western-front strategy had a fighting chance. After all, Abraham Lincoln had only won California’s four electoral votes in 1860 by less than one percent. Perhaps if he’d read of Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister in San Francisco known for his fiery, pro-Union rallies in what later became known as Union Square, Davis might have recalibrated his enthusiasm. “I pledged California to a Northern Republic and to a flag that should have no treacherous cotton thread in its warp,” Starr King thundered to wild applause and fulsome praise from no less an orator than Lincoln himself.

Fast forward to 2019. The country is embroiled in a new political crisis with echoes of the 1850s. This time around, California is not a sideshow. It is a centerpiece. Yet whatever else might have changed in the state over the last 170 years, I believe most Californians — even those wearing Bear Republic T-shirts — still cling to their faith in an enlightened central government serving in the greater public interest. While others might ridicule us as unpatriotic or feckless, we remain true blue, loyal to the great national cause of unity over division. And while we no longer send wooden ships full of gold coins to New York or Boston, our steady stream of electronic donations to likeminded political candidates across the country speaks to our history of changing history, as well as to our welcoming vision of what America means. It also suggests that if push comes to shove, we’d likely muster up a regiment or two, dust off the saddles, ride into the desert, and help to put down any modern-day Confederates once more. In the end, this willingness to defend America’s golden promise might be California’s most important contribution of all.

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