An Uncertain Influence
The Role of the Federal Government in California, 1846–1880
Robert J. Chandler
Did rugged individualists tame the West, or did pioneers merely arrive at a well-ordered colony of the federal government? Popular myth enshrines the first view. In 1991, however, “New” Western historian Richard White, building on more than a half century of research, argued that “The West has been historically a dependency of the federal government. ” Moreover, he observed, “the West itself served as the kindergarten of the American state, ” teaching it the governing skills needed to develop a sparsely settled land. In a 1999 article, Karen R. Merrill called on New Western historians to specifically distinguish how federal aid to the West differed from benevolence to other regions. What has been the federal role in dynamic California?
White concentrated on the less populated territories and states. He excluded the largest and most populous western states, Texas and California, as their “early statehood place[s] them in a different category, ” which renders his theory dubious for the Golden State between 1846 and 1880. During the pioneer period, when residents quickly needed the most rudimentary federal services, the national government did not provide. Through the nineteenth century, in fact, the federal government's participation in California was more a product of happenstance than it was activist, but growing more sure of itself, the government gradually laid the foundation for a dominant role building the West in the twentieth century.
Historian William Henry Ellison argues that through the 1850s, when southern strict constructionists dominated, the federal government did too little, too late. The national government failed in any actions that required speed. Question and answer between Washington and San Francisco took up to three months, leading the San Francisco newspaper Alta California to remark, “The Golden State is the only one which, in consequence of its isolation, is forced to work out her own destiny. ”