Founding the Far West Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this political history of the founding of the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada, David Alan Johnson has attempted to combine a study of ideology and culture with individual biography. Using as his focal points the movement into statehood of three territories—California in 1849, Oregon in 1857, and Nevada in 1864—he examines both the society found in each area and the people who brought their individual beliefs and visions with them to this frontier land. Johnson’s study covers the years 1840 to 1890, half a century centered around the Civil War. Although most of the primary fighting was confined to the eastern half of the country, Johnson shows how the war’s causes and its outcome directly influenced the political development of these western lands. Nevertheless, he also makes the case that these three contiguous regions had their separate political and cultural agenda, that each was an individual state with an identity based on social beliefs and economic realities.

Johnson constructs his study on three “considerations.” First, because the creation of the state constitutions of each of these regions occurred before the end of the Civil War, “the early charter societies and the political charters of California, Oregon, and Nevada were the creation of antebellum Americans” bringing with them “similar cultural baggage,” including a common sense of national identity, symbols, and allegiances. The second consideration is that despite these “commonalities,” the writers of the constitutions were nevertheless “representatives of distinct, self-selected ‘fragments’ of antebellum American culture and society.” Each area drew, for various reasons, different kinds of immigrants who brought with them distinctive attitudes and rationales, which were then incorporated into the philosophies of the constitutions themselves. Johnson’s third point is that these authors represented a generation whose lives were “divided, not ended, by the Civil War era”: “In writing constitutions they left detailed records of their individual ideologies and common political culture at the threshold of the Civil War. Because their lives extended into the 1880’s and even beyond, they confronted the long-term consequences of both war and industrial revolution.”

These three considerations help to establish the overall structure of the book. Johnson has divided his work into three sections, with each section containing separate chapters on each of the chosen states. The first section, “Politics and Society,” concentrates on the prestatehood era of each territory: California from 1769 to 1849; Oregon from 1835 to 1857; and Nevada from 1849 to 1864. The second part, “Personality, Ideology, and Political Culture,” details the writing of the individual constitutions, in Monterey, California; Salem, Oregon; and Carson City, Nevada. In this section, Johnson introduces the selected authors whose lives he finds representative or significant, although he quite rightly makes the point that he is not subscribing to the “great men” approach to history in doing so. “I have not chosen these individuals in order to resurrect reputations or claim greatness; rather, I have reconstructed the lives of ordinary men in politics because one finds in the details, where experience, personality, and ideology intersect, a key to political culture,” Johnson writes. His claim is supported by these mini-biographies, which effectively illustrate how a variety of personages from different backgrounds formed the kind of political identity each state came to assume. The third section, “History and Memory,” traces the aftermath of the historical moment of statehood, the success or failure of each state to hold to the goals and ideals put forth in its constitution. He also follows the lives of the selected individuals examined in section 2 beyond this event, for many of them their one moment of importance.

Each of these regions, in Johnson’s study, assumes a kind of personality, caused in part by its settlers but also by its physical environment and social history. The land of California, originally a Mexican province, was in the early part of the 1800’s “a land of isolated regions, imposing geography, and poor communications” populated by native-born “Californios.” The region had a strong Hispanic culture. The first wave of Anglo settlers were soldiers of fortune, New England merchants, and hopeful farmers. By 1847, the Americans had conquered the Mexican natives and taken control of the land, but the military rule that followed proved to be an unacceptable form of government to these Anglo-American settlers. When the California gold rush began in earnest in 1848, the need for order became even more evident. Johnson describes the prevailing social view as “Lockean liberalism—the position that men who maximize their private satisfactions serve the common good,” but the desire for self-gain led to conflict and power struggles. The delegates to the convention came from all over the region, and...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)