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In his chamber, weak and dying, While the Robber Baron lay, Loud, without, his men were crying, “Shorter hours and better pay!”

We have all been told that California was dragged kicking and screaming into the United States as the fulfillment of a crazed sense of empire as the behest of the religious zealots of manifest destiny. The less than glorious truth – if no less venal truth – is that the railroads needed a western terminus that would open up Pacific trade. The gold rush, like slavery, is not much more than a side show, albeit an interesting one as this book proves.

The California Gold Rush and the coming of the Civil War New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2007 Leonard L. Richards United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Causes Hardcover. 1st. ed. 289 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [239-278]) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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It has always been understood that the 1848 discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada influenced the battle over the admission of California to the Union. But now Richards posits links between the Gold Rush and many of the regional crises in the lead-up to the Civil War.

Richards claims Southerners envisioned California as a new market for slaves and saw themselves importing their own slaves to dig for gold, only to be frustrated by California’s passage of a state constitution that prohibited slavery. Still, they tried to tie California to the South with a southern-routed transcontinental railroad and worked to split off the southern half as a separate state.

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We are told the Gold Rush influenced the squabbling over the Gadsden Purchase, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and various attempts to take Cuba and Nicaragua. We meet David Broderick, a renegade New York Democrat who became a force in San Francisco politics in 1849, and his archrival William Gwin, a Mississippi politician who arrived in California with the intent of making himself one of its first senators. Richards recounts the Washington battles involving Taylor, Clay, Calhoun, Douglas, Davis, Webster, Fillmore, and others, as well as the fiery California political battles, feuds, duels, and perhaps outright murder as the state came shockingly close to being divided in two.

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When war did break out efforts were made to push California to secede, but most prominent Southerners went off to join the Confederate Army for what they mistakenly belived would be a short war. With the South out of the Union, the Pacific Railroad Act passed, insuring a comfortably northern route and paying off Lincoln’s major supporters and financial backers with millions of acres of land and even more millions of dollars in tax exemptions and financial incentives. Although the gold from California was the life blood of the northern cause the costs of the railroad guaranteed that the union had to embark on a war whose victory would allow them to reduce the South to a colonial possession in order to pay for it.

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