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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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