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Los Angeles: The Secessionist Capital of the West

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It’s a little hard to fathom today, but for many decades, Los Angeles was an unbelievably conservative city. Of course it was the home of Nixon and Reagan. In 1910, unionists bombed the Los Angeles Times because it was so anti-union. But the city’s right-wing history goes back much further, back to the beginning of American occupation. At that time, it was an incredibly violent city, even by western standards, with murder rates far higher than even the rest of California. John Mack Faragher’s new book details this in great detail, and I highly recommended it to LGM readers. It’s also very readable and an $11 paperback. You have nothing to lose, so buy it.

One of the issues Faragher goes into is that Los Angeles was a hotbed of secessionism and many in the white population there wanted to join the Confederacy. That’s because many southerners had moved there and many of them volunteered to fight for treason in defense of slavery. Here’s a primer on this that is worth your time.

Henry Hamilton, publisher of the Star, actively fostered the spirit of disloyalty in Los Angeles. Hamilton had mocked Lincoln during the election of 1860 and loudly supported the southern states in abandoning the Union in advance of Lincoln’s inauguration. In February 1861, Hamilton had suggested that disunion should lead to an impossible compromise. “Even if secession should run its full course, and there be presented a consolidated South against the aggressions of a united North, there may, even in that attitude … arise negotiations for a union … in which the rights of the South shall be fully and fairly stipulated and guaranteed.”

Southern rights necessarily included the right to own human property, which Hamilton defended as fundamental to the principles of the Constitution. As John W. Robinson has argued, “Historians of the pre-Civil War period would be hard put to find anywhere a more vociferous advocate of slavery.”

Hamilton was an “inflexible Confederate sympathizer” who rallied secessionist Angeleños with editorials that championed states’ rights and white supremacy. He denounced Republicans, unionist Democrats, and anyone who sought to abolish slavery. He would, the following year, describe the Civil War explicitly as a race war.

Hamilton was not alone. Edward Kewen, a nativist and white supremacist, had given rousing speeches before cheering Los Angeles audiences in the weeks leading up to the 1860 election. So had California’s newly elected U.S. Senator, Milton Latham. Democrats in the pro-secession Breckenridge Club had met in front of the Montgomery Saloon in Los Angeles every Tuesday evening before the election, often to hear Kewen speak, followed by a torchlight procession up Main Street to the old Plaza.

Having told listeners “I must confess … I am not enamored with this word loyalty,”[xxii] Kewen continued to stir up secessionist support during the first months of 1861. “Hardly a day goes by, wrote a worried Jonathan Warner, “without leading to the discovery that individuals unsuspected of disloyalty are deeply tainted with disloyalty.”

There was a great deal of loose talk at the bar at the Bella Union Hotel, where ex-southerners and pro-secessionists gathered, sometimes to spill out on the street with shouts of “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” and boozy choruses of “We’ll Drive the Bloody Tyrant Lincoln From Our Dear Native Soil.” With an air of urgent expectation, armed riders from San Bernardino and El Monte would appear at the Plaza, only to ride off again. Union men increasingly felt intimidated.

Charles Conway, publisher of the Semi-Weekly Southern News, understood their anxiety. His paper stood in opposition to secession and Southern California’s drift toward annexation to the newly created Confederate States. He attacked Hamilton, calling him a traitor, and deplored the extent of secessionist enthusiasm that Hamilton’s Star had encouraged.

“We shall be set down as a county not to be relied upon, and as a county containing naught but traitors and conspirators,” Conway would later warn. He eventually called for the suppression of Hamilton’s paper. “No other government in the world suffers itself to be misrepresented and maligned by its citizens,” he would complain, “and it is time our Government should prove no exception.”

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  • DAS

    I was born and raised in sunny So.Cal. As we learned in local history, most of So. Cal was composed of various “ranches”. IOW, it was an agrarian society much aligned with the South. As I say, Southern California is the South without the accent, food or good manners.

    • kathy Klos

      Sorry lived in the south, visited Socal – the food is better. Which food? Good Susi not happening in the Rural south.

      • Thom

        Wake up, little Susi, wake up.

      • Being of a naturally charitabIe disposition, I prefer to read DAS as saying not that the Southerners’ food (or their accent, or—God bless them!—their “good manners”) are better than those on display in Southern California, but only that—at least to first order—all three are more nearly constant across the South (probably excluding Texas, and maybe, if forced to do so, Louisiana and Florida) than they are in (multicultural, modern) So. Cal.

        • DAS

          I won’t go into which is better. I had plenty of good food growing up in So. Cal, but I do also like fried chicken, grits, etc. As to the others, I also will not make a value judgement, except to say that most Angelenos do not have a Southern accent nor do they call their parents “sir”/”ma’am”.

        • SatanicPanic

          I can’t speak to the south but if the people are better and nicer than SoCal and the food is better then it must be an amazing place. This goes against everything I’ve ever heard but whatever

          • CrunchyFrog

            “As long as you be white, boy, we treat you right.”

            Southern manners is just another fucking right wing myth like so many others. For certain people of certain status, maybe. But their distain for outsiders and people of lower castes is off the scales.

            • Origami Isopod

              Yeah, this.

              Not to mention that “Southern manners” are also to a great extent the “sweet as pie to your face, knife in the back” variety.

            • firefall

              CCrunchy, just what I was going to say, after 9 years immersed in the South :/

      • Jon Hendry

        There’s a population of Vietnamese immigrant fishermen along the Gulf Coast, so that’d be one area you might find good Asian food.

    • SatanicPanic

      What? Not any more

      ETA- seriously outside of Riverside I dunno what you’re talking about

      • Gwai Lo, MD

        My thought also. The Inland Empire has its share of conservatives, but I wouldn’t consider them Southern. Also, a number of them have given up on California and moved to Texas.

        I’ve always felt the ranches descended from the Spanish tradition. That would make it more Southwestern than Southern, though.

        • SatanicPanic

          There does seem to be a lot of conservative types leaving the state- I should see if I can find demographics on that. It makes sense as the state has gotten bluer (and browner).

  • kathy Klos

    ‘back to the beginning of American occupation’
    Of what the Mexican occupation the one based on universal suffrage and a vote by the locals to join Spain – not?. I appreciate the thoughts but really you lessen them with lurid prose.

    You have repeatedly called out the US for Imperialism in what is now the western US but have failed to describe ow Russia or the UK or Spain/Mexico were better or had more rights to their imperialism in the same place.

    • Dr. Waffle

      That’s funny, considering the fact that what you just wrote is borderline indecipherable.

      • Ramon A. Clef

        OK, it wasn’t just me. I thought I was having a stroke.

      • kathy Klos

        I will correct – for f-sake I run a bar and really don’t have the time edit a first draft any more but you avoided answers to the fairly clear question I asked.

        • Dr. Waffle

          No one cares.

      • cpinva

        it wasn’t, and any stroke is the result of unrelated issues. if any of the european, eurasian colonizers had a legitimate claim to N. America, it would be Russia, since the original immigrants (the ancestors of our current “Native Americans” most likely crossed the Bering landbridge. unless there’s some other DNA involved). i know Loomis hates science that doesn’t agree with his opinion, but there you are. there never were any truly indiginous humans on this continet, nor asia or europe. then there were the French/Spanish/British. hell, Charles II was arrogant enough to give the Chesapeake Bay Company a charter encompassing about 3/4’s of the continent. he also thought tobacco was disgusting, no idea what his feelings were on beer.

        • Dr. Waffle

          Shorter cpinva: “Native Americans were the REAL IMPERIALISTS.”

  • CrunchyFrog

    Interesting reading (again) examples of pro-southern commentary in 1861. I mean, it’s basically the same as today. Lincoln as a “tyrant” matches the fevered wingnut conception of Democratic leaders – in both cases totally not based on reality. In both cases the root cause was a different view of treatment of racial minorities.

    Sigh. We humans are just going to keep fighting this same fight until we commit self-extinction.

    • Mellano

      It’s almost as though you can only justify elite control of all economic power by resort to name-calling and ideals made of bullshit stretched to the point of transparency.

    • We humans are just going to keep fighting this same fight until we commit self-extinction.

      Don’t worry, the fight is almost over. Self-extinction is probably less than 50 years away.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Was thinking that when I wrote it. Oh, not extinct in 50 years. There will be pockets of survivors. They may cling to survival for several generations thereafter. But the global temperature cake is already baked. If we shut off every one of the coal plants, oil refineries, and methane-leaking natural gas pipes today there is a chance the species could survive. But we won’t. It’s what in literature what they call our “fatal flaw”.

    • Jon Hendry

      Sigh. We humans are just going to keep fighting this same fight until we commit self-extinction.

      I, for one, welcome our new evolved-tardigrade overlords. Or would if I hadn’t been part of the extinction.

      But seriously, I wonder what tardigrade-based intelligent life would be like.

  • yet_another_lawyer

    I missed the linked “this day in labor history” from 2013 the first time and would love to read the comment thread, which often adds a lot of discussion, nuance, clarification from the OP, etc. Alas, Disqus ate it. It’s just gone forever. Sigh…

    • Ramon A. Clef

      Wayback machine have any of it?

    • Erik’s “This Day in Labor History” posts don’t really seem to generate much in the way of comment threads most of the time.

      • Origami Isopod

        To be fair, they’re more on the educational side than on the comment-eliciting side. Which I think is fine. Sometimes you want to argue with a blogpost, sometimes you just want to learn from it.

      • CrunchyFrog

        I, and others, occasionally comment on them only to say “I have nothing to say but I love reading these”.

        Keep in mind the large majority of LGM readers never comment.

    • Weren’t we assured we could keep our previous comments? I was away from the iNternet when the big change took place, but I’m pretty damn sure we were told pre-Disqus comments would be imported or migrated or whatever the catch-phrase was.

      Fork-tongued attys.!

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Yes, that sounds like what I heard. Also, something about keeping my doctor.

  • Harkov311

    Unsettling Fact: California and Oregon were the most pro-Confederate states without slavery before the Civil War. They were the only northern states that John Breckinridge almost won in the 1860 election, and Oregon actually did vote for Horatio Seymour in 1868 running on a platform of open racism.

    • Paul Thomas

      To be fair, there were parts of Illinois and Indiana where Copperheadism was the outright majority view.

  • bluicebank

    Politically, California is a flip of the national North-South reversal of the mid-20th century (Democratic Party abandons Southern/Conservative positions, GOP embraces them, and parties switch geographic North-South strongholds).

    A century before, not only Los Angeles/Southern Calif., but San Francisco were secessionist (Democratic), while pro-Union (Republican) lay mostly in Northern California. But L.A. and S.F. remain Democratic strongholds, and NoCal a Republican one, but only by dint of the parties switching shirts.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    A former coworker was a retired LAPD captain and mentioned that Inglewood used to be a mostly white cop town. For a long time in the early 20th C. there was a very active KKK chapter based in Inglewood (no shit), which every Sunday would mass in full Klan regalia along the Inglewood border with Compton (largely black then and now).

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan_raid_(Inglewood)

    My stepfather grew up immersed in right-wing Cold Warrior Bircher loonery in a Huntington Beach / Orange County aerospace family. He can quote all their BS chapter and verse. When his dad passed a few years ago, he knew without ever being told there’d be gold bars stashed away somewhere in the house, and he was right.

    • Gwai Lo, MD

      My neighbors while I was growing up moved from Inglewood in the 1960s as part of the White Flight (I believe they were native Angelinos born around 1920). They had previously lived in Hawthorne during its “Whites Only” period. He worked in aerospace.

      What’s interesting is that I don’t recall them mentioning any racial-based concerns regarding their move to the suburbs. Not even during the LA Riots. And this was a man who used the term “Negro” as the main descriptor of African-Americans.

      My best sense of the matter is that the Southern-style racism declined around the 1920s. There was still plenty of racism and discrimination, but it wasn’t the Jim Crow South.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Before this blogopost, I thought the whole problem had been imported from Texas/AR/MS/AL as so many people there, black and white, had migrated to SoCal for economic purposes, Dust Bowl, Depression, and WWII aviation production. Plus, Inhad learned from Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz about how many WASPs were enticed to move there to escape Cleveland. Er, I mean, the Catholics and the Eastern Europeans and all the other groups said WASPs wanted to get away from (BLACKS AND JEWS!)

        So thanks, Prof. Loomis, for the education.

        But I don’t think you bring in that many white people from that part of the USA and build, say, an LAPD that isn’t frightening.

  • Tyro

    “Even if secession should run its full course, and there be presented a consolidated South against the aggressions of a united North, there may, even in that attitude

    Say what you want about Henry Hamilton, at least he knew how to use the subjunctive correctly…

    • “My darling wife: We are now without sugar, flour, coffee and salterus for the second day in a row. I therefore will ride into town and obtain these much needed supplies. The Lord willing, I should arrive back before suppertime. Please be strong for the children until I return.”

      • Dennis Orphen

        Half-day rides into town with a serious caffeine withdrawal headache are THE WORST, unless you’re smart enough to keep a couple of cans of Rockstar stashed under your bunk for exactly these types of emergencies.

  • Paul Thomas

    And yet, if it hadn’t been for said bombing, Job Harriman would in all likelihood have been elected mayor on the Socialist Party ticket. Instead, he gave up politics and moved out to Palmdale to form a utopian colony.

    Early L.A. was a weird place.

    • pluky

      As opposed to present day LA?

      • Gwai Lo, MD

        Touché.

  • SatanicPanic

    Sounds awesome will read it.

  • Origami Isopod

    Interesting. I’m one of those ignorant Easterners who doesn’t know much about Western U.S. history outside of broad strokes, and I’d assumed the conservatism came west with the Okies.

  • Uncle_Ebeneezer

    We also had a fair number of lynchings. You can take a walking tour of the sites downtown.

    This looks like a great book!

  • Michael Newsham

    One of Alternate History’s persistent timelines is “California Splits, with SoCal joining the Confederacy”. General consensus: not gonna happen. Southern California had a small secessionist movement which was overwhelmed by Unionist sentiment, there and elsewhere. About 50 Californians joined the Confederate Army (200 if you count part-time bandits, bushwhackers, and other ‘freedom fighters’); 5,000 joined the Union Army. Support for the Confederacy was never more than a bunch of loudmouths.

  • Gwai Lo, MD

    I love learning about LA history because my family has lived here so long. My relative (great-granduncle) was sent by William Fox to run the West Coast Studios a century ago (1917). And that was the industry in which much of my family worked. (We’re out of the business now and don’t have Hollywood money.)

    As a family of New York (and European) Jewish transplants within that industry, we have a very different sense of LA history. It was a land of opportunity, definitely not agrarian, and quite cosmopolitan. It’s likely that my family was part of the wave that liberalized the city.

    I currently reside in a suburb within an old Craftsman house. It was all citrus groves in this area at the time my family arrived in California. These contrasting historical concepts have left me struggling to develop a historical sense of place. Identity is one thing that Angelinos constantly struggle with because our history coincides with the rapidly-changing 20th century. Unlike Eastern cities, there aren’t hundreds of years of development. It’s a boomtown that never stopped booming.

  • Jon Hendry

    Sounds like southern California was more “western Arizona”.

  • If only the Angels had signed the Rock, but it was not to be: it’s never Raines in Southern California.

  • Svensker

    There are still plenty of right wing fringe loonies in So Cal. but there is also the film industry which, while not conservative politically, is certainly conservative in feel. It’s a closed group, it’s not wild about outsiders particularly if they happen to be dark skinned — plus they all get up to go to work at 5 in the morning, work 12 hour days, go to bed early. Yes, there is lots of sex and drugs, but the work ethic is strong. People think Hollywood is the land of wild and crazy parties — there are those parties, but those are usually people “between films” or talent, who are like artists everywhere.

  • burnspbesq

    Some things don’t change. If a secession referendum were to appear on the ballot in 2018, it would likely carry L.A. County, if for no other reason than fear and hatred of ICE.

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