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Splitsville: Californians Have Tried—and Failed—200 Times to Divide the State

June 4, 2014
by Vicki Haddock
A painting of war

The seething Northern Californians had decided enough was enough—it was time to quit the state for good.

Rancor bubbled through the counties of Siskiyou, Shasta, Del Norte, and Modoc in 1941. Chief among residents’ grievances: Their roads were like washboards in the summer and mud baths in the winter. They felt overtaxed—steamrollered by Southern California and ignored in the capital. And so they announced their intention to secede from California, to join with rural Oregon and form a new state. The Yreka Chamber of Commerce planned to call it Mittelwestcoastia, but a newspaper contest procured a catchier alternative: Jefferson.

Soon the rifle-toting renegades were throwing up roadblocks on Highway 99, handing stopped motorists a proclamation of independence and windshield stickers emblazoned with “I have visited JEFFERSON, the 49th State.” The Jefferson state seal featured a mining pan marked with XX—symbolizing how double-crossed people felt by the California down yonder. Selecting a local judge as governor, they staged a torchlight parade/inaugural extravaganza. The San Francisco Chronicle dispatched Stan Delaplane, whose reports on the rebellion would win a Pulitzer Prize. Even Time and Life magazines and Hollywood newsreel makers covered the December 4 inaugural.

A state of Jefferson checkpoint

Three days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Jefferson faded into oblivion.

Well, not quite. It continues today as what locals call “a state of mind.” Several businesses still fly the double-cross flag. A network of FM stations refer to themselves as Jefferson Public Radio, and the secessionist spirit flickers on. “We have nothing in common with you people down south. Nothing,” lumber mill manager Randy Bashaw told a Chronicle reporter when the paper revisited the secessionist tale a few years ago. “The sooner we’re done with all you people, the better.”

Like twins who are anything but identical—and sometimes hardly fraternal—Northern and Southern California have squabbled to the brink of partition throughout the state’s history. Periods of relatively peaceful coexistence have inevitably erupted into controversial, often comic, crescendos.

In fact, more than 200 times since the state was formed, would-be separatists have pushed to bisect or trisect the state. Many of those attempts were windmill-tilting publicity stunts, but others came closer to prevailing than you might imagine.

Today the most common adjective attached to California may be “ungovernable.” Its population has swelled with immigrants and its economy is hobbled. The contrasts between the cultures of Northern and Southern California, and between the state’s coastal areas and its eastern valleys, seem as stark as ever. A 2011 MIT study that identified natural geographic connections based on phone and text communications indicates that while it would make sense to unite North and South Carolina, it would be more logical to divide California.

In fact, the two-state solution remains a quixotic idea—but one that just won’t die.

“There’s no question that in the last ten years, in many ways, the state has grown more dysfunctional. And its size is clearly a factor in that,” said Ted Lempert, the former Bay Area assemblyman who is a political science lecturer at Berkeley. “On the pro side, a split would make the state more governable. We have a very small legislature for a very big state. Legislative districts are so large that interest groups come to have an inordinate amount of influence, while legislators may feel less accountable for their constituents because you don’t know your representative.”

It’s true that politicians in the California Assembly represent about ten times more constituents than the national average for a lower house of state legislatures. Creating smaller districts here could rectify that problem, although it would require producing even more politicians. The Assembly might then have to abandon the Sacramento statehouse and convene in a stadium.

Lempert also noted that breaking the state apart would allow the resulting legislatures to focus on fewer issues and get better results. “When you’re a California legislator, you’re called on to be an expert on practically everything. It’s hard to imagine any issue we don’t have to deal with. Tornadoes maybe, although I believe we even had one of those last year.”

To equal the po­tency of Ver­mont in the U.S. Sen­ate, Cali­for­nia would be en­titled to 57 sen­at­ors!

California’s unwieldy size also dilutes its power at the federal level. The state is particularly shortchanged in the United States Senate, where each state, regardless of population, is awarded two senators. Thus there is one senator representing every 313,000 residents of Vermont, and one senator for roughly every 18 million Californians. To equal the potency of Vermont in the U.S. Senate, California would be entitled to 57 senators! “Obviously if we were creating California from scratch,” Lempert said, “we’d do a lot of things differently.”

The spin-off of one state from within another is not unprecedented: Vermont was (arguably) a byproduct of New York; Kentucky and West Virginia were once subsets of Virginia; and Maine was a spin-off of Massachusetts. More recently, Maine has contemplated subdividing again. And proving that California isn’t at all unusual in its north-south bifurcation, the Maine politicians who’ve pushed the idea cite innate differences between the hardscrabble Northerners who hunt and farm and watch out for moose on country lanes, and the Southerners who sail, shop at L.L.Bean, and use summer as a verb.

Others among the big 50 that have at some point seriously considered bisecting include Florida, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, and Texas—the only state that would not require Congressional approval for a split because Texans insisted on retaining the right to subdivide into four additional states as a condition of original statehood.

Any cockamamie notion can propel a campaign for statehood, as documentarian Michael Trinklein demonstrates in his book Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. Sometimes it’s the demand of a religious group, as when colonial merchant Sam Hazard was prompted to advocate for creating a Protestant state called Hazard—its proposed charter banned “Mass Houses or Pope-ish chapels.” Or when Brigham Young later petitioned Congress for creation of a Mormon state, to be called Deseret, that would have embraced parts of modern-day California and eight other states, including what eventually became Utah.

Sometimes it’s the demand for a fancy highway: The residents of 14 counties in western Illinois felt so snubbed by the federal government’s failure to build an interstate highway between Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960s and 1970s that they symbolically proclaimed themselves residents of a new state: The state the developers forgot, which they dubbed Forgottonia.

Or it may be a fit of pique: When Missouri accidentally left the town of Noel off the state tourism map in 1961, the Ozark county in which Noel resides formed a provisional government, deployed its own militia to secure its borders, and generated more attention than it would otherwise have garnered.

Occasionally, serious issues are at stake. In the Civil War era, Appalachian farmers across a swath of Tennessee and Alabama sought to establish a state neutral about slavery. The proposed new state of Nickajack included, notes Trinklein, “a haven for anti-war types—sort of the Berkeley of the Civil War era.” But it never took hold—unlike the efforts of Union sympathizers in Virginia, who successfully forged a new free state they named West Virginia.

Con­gress of­fi­cially ad­mit­ted the state in 1850. How long did it take be­fore the im­pulse for di­vorce arose? About a year.

From its inception as the Spanish territory of Alta California, what we now know as California was so vast that the Franciscan padres regarded it as virtually impossible to administer. The nucleus of Alta California lay in the South, among the hundreds of Californios who grazed cattle on expansive ranchos. Almost overnight, however, the Gold Rush tipped the balance to the North, swelling new population centers and transforming San Francisco into a metropolis richer, per capita, than New York.

By 1849, when Californians met in Monterey to draft a constitution and petition for admission as the 31st state, the rift between North and South cut deep and oozed mistrust. Only a quarter of the 28 delegates were from the South, and its tradition-minded Californios were wary of uniting in statehood with the uncouth miners, merchants, and other fortune hunters of the North. The Southerners’ greatest fear was that the Yankee newcomers, who mined leased land, would connive to fund state operations by taxing large landholders.

Into the breach burst Mississippi doctor William Gwin, a plantation owner who had just lost his seat in Congress to future Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Also a die-hard supporter of slavery, Gwin relocated to California to get himself elected to the United States senate, and he figured his odds were better if California’s border were set not at the Sierra Nevadas, but at the Rocky Mountains—territory that big would have to be divided into a Northern free and Southern slave state. He persuaded the Californios to go along by bribing them with a promise of even bigger land grants. But Gwin was outmaneuvered by the Northerners, who countered by deploying San Francisco delegate Francis Lippitt. Sick with malaria but high on laudanum, he delivered a stirring and ultimately persuasive speech for a single, free California.

Congress officially admitted the state in 1850. Its first two senators were abolitionist John Fremont and slavery advocate Gwin. How long did it take before the impulse for divorce arose?

About a year.

A stuffed bear

Congress passed the California Land Act of 1851, which required holders of Mexican land grants to prove ownership of California property acquired by the United States after the Mexican-American war. That sent Californios scrambling to prove their claims, draining their holdings to pay for lawyers. The Southerners also were shelling out a grossly disproportionate share of taxes for services in the North. In 1851, a conclave of Southern California delegates met to devise a separation from their Northern neighbors, noting that “whatever good the experiment of a state government may have otherwise led to in California, for us, the southern counties, it has proved only a splendid failure.”

Soon even the governor called for severing the state in two. The state Assembly did him one better in 1855 by approving a plan to split it in three: the northern State of Shasta, the southern State of Colorado (a name not yet taken), and the leftover middle retaining the name California. Amid accusations that pro-slavery forces were behind the idea, it failed to clear the Senate.

Then in 1859, California came as close as it ever would to division. An aggrieved Southern California ranchero named Don Andres Pico—representing a single Assembly district that included Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties—introduced the Pico Act. It called for forging a new State of Colorado out of all the counties south of Big Sur. Controversial in the North but hugely popular in the “overtaxed” farming and ranching areas of the South, the Pico Act rocketed through the state Legislature, winning Assembly and Senate approval and the governor’s signature in less than a month.

But one hurdle remained: Federal approval. Suffice it to say that Congress was preoccupied with another, more cataclysmic North–South split. The Civil War effectively tabled the Pico Act.

Like a gawky gymnast, California kept trying to do the splits. Some efforts were pure whimsy: Gold miners in the town of Rough and Ready once declared they were seceding not just from the state but from the whole country. One legend has it they abandoned their goofy separatism after bartenders in nearby towns refused to serve drinks to “foreigners.”

Other proposals were more sober, and attained partial success.

All through the 20th century, the pendulum of power swung from the North to the South. In 1910, the population of the two regions achieved a moment of parity. Then the South just kept on booming. Propelled by stupendous growth on arid soil, it tried to quench its insatiable thirst for water, tapping the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and any Northern water it could divert. Northern California may contain 80 percent of the state’s naturally occurring water, but Southern California now holds 60 percent of the state’s population—and dominance in the Legislature. Agribusiness in the central valleys is fighting for more water, as well.

The rest, as they say, is history—and more stabs at secession.

In 1965, for example, the state Senate approved a proposal to bisect California along the Tehachapi Mountains. The bill’s sponsor, San Mateo Republican Richard Dolwig, warned that the confiscation of the Owens River offered an ominous foreshadowing into the fate awaiting Northern California: “Years ago, we got an example of how Los Angeles exercises its power whenever it can get away with it.” But the Assembly refused to go along.

“I had no idea there were so many different efforts to split California until I started research,” said Eleanor Smith, who earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley in 1993. As Californians clashed over whether a proposed Peripheral Canal was really a water grab, she coauthored the 1983 book Two Californias: The Truth about the Split-State Movement. Smith spent months poring over microfilm records at the Bancroft Library and meticulously documenting the idiosyncrasies of various failed secession attempts.

“The idea was powerfully intriguing to people,” she recently recalled. “Like any good journalist, I would call up legislators, bankers, regulators, you name it … and almost every single one of them wanted to pause from whatever they were doing and walk me through the details of how it might work.”

In retrospect, she regards efforts to split the state as “the sideshow. It’s really not the underlying big issue in California. The underlying big issue was, and is, water.”

Yet she and her coauthor, Michael Di Leo, also explored philosophical differences between Northern and Southern California, noting that “the snide humor of North–South rivalry is as significant in its way as the loftiest debate on water policy.”

A book cover

These differences pervade the state’s psyche. They inspired Berkeley author Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, a 1975 cult classic that remains required reading at some colleges. Set in Northern California in 1999, Ecotopia envisions an ecological paradise in which residents—having grown “literally sick of bad air, chemicalized foods, and lunatic advertising”—have seceded to live communally, savor free love and drugs, recycle virtually everything, and use a bike-sharing network to get about. It goes without saying that Southern California was deemed unfit for car-free Ecotopia.

Little has changed. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece last year, writer and columnist Patt Morrison recalled a contest she ran on Life & Times, a program she founded and cohosted on Los Angeles’s PBS station KCET. When asked to come up with names for a California in thirds, one viewer proffered Logland, Fogland, and Smogland, north to south. Another astute viewer suggested, from south to north, Id, Ego, and Super Ego.

Snark notwithstanding, the last time the Legislature took a step toward subdividing the state was in 1992. Republican Assemblyman Stan Statham of Chico persuaded the Assembly to support a measure allowing county-by-county advisory referendums on splitting the state in three. The goal was to gauge citizen interest. This time, it was the state Senate that balked.

Today, Statham is out of the Legislature but no less convinced of the wisdom and inevitability of a state split. Last year, he told a Fresno panel to “stand by for another bill on the issue.”

“California already is divided,” he added. “Red Bluff and Los Angeles? They’re not in the same state—they’re on different planets…. When a marriage is dysfunctional, as many of them are, well hell, get a divorce and start over.”

Peculiar grievances still trigger campaigns. Disgruntled farmers and their allies hatched “Downsize California” after passage of an initiative in 2008 to mandate more-humane conditions for poultry and livestock. “We cannot allow agriculturally uneducated city dwellers to dictate farm policies,” the group’s website currently declares. Instead, Downsize California proposes differentiating the people who raise chickens from the people who just eat them—presumably along with their vegan neighbors. The coastal counties from Marin to Los Angeles would be uncoupled from the rest of the state, leaving the remaining 46 counties “as a newly revitalized California.”

The latest two-state solution arose from Riverside County, where Supervisor Jeff Stone wants a diagonal divide—crafting “South California” out of Fresno, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino, San Diego, and Tulare counties. A conservative Republican, Stone maximized the concentration of voters who favor tax cuts and a border crackdown. Riverside County supervisors endorsed a 2011 summit on the plan, prompting another round of global headlines about California cracking up.

His prediction? “A new state of South Cali­for­nia would be a fisc­al bas­ket case.”

“A secessionist movement? What is this, 1860?” queried a spokesperson for Governor Jerry Brown, labeling the idea “a supremely ridiculous waste of everybody’s time.”

Critics contend that split-state proposals are economically and politically unrealistic. Mark Paul, recently a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, pointed out that the coastal areas generate most of the state’s money, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, from biotech to tourism, while the inland areas have disproportionately costly needs for human services. “A new state of South California,” he predicted, “would be a fiscal basket case.”

Nor would Congress ever be inclined to give its required blessing to such a separation, given that it would require members from the other 49 states, by increasing California’s political representation, to lessen their own. “We Californians love ourselves very much,” Paul said, “but the rest of the country doesn’t love us very much.”

A final point: While Californians indulge in the fantasy, they also remain deeply skeptical. Since the Field Poll began surveying the notion of a North–South cleavage back in 1959, an average of 70 percent of residents disapprove. Even when secessionist sentiment peaked in the early 1990s, it was unpopular by a three-to-one margin. The latest Field Poll, in 2009, found 71 percent disapproving of a North–South separation—and an even greater 82 percent rejecting a hypothetical East–West split.

Perhaps Californians simply know enough about divorce to understand how messy it could get.

“Pick anything and try to envision how you would break them apart and reconstitute them,” said Lempert. “The UC system, the CSU system, the DMV, all of the state’s bureaucracy and infrastructure. It’s too hard to get your head around how it would work. It would be a Herculean undertaking—painful and overwhelming, and thus ultimately not worth doing.

“If we’re going to devote that much effort, let’s fix our education system.”

Editor’s Note (6-4-2014): The perpetual urge to divide California may never succeed—nor seemingly will it ever subside. In Tuesday’s election, voters in two northern counties weighed in on the idea of pulling out of California to create the oft-envisioned State of Jefferson: The notion passed in Tehama but failed in Del Norte. And in Siskiyou County, voters rejected a proposal to rename their county the Republic of Jefferson. But secessionists, take heart. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper still hopes to collect enough signatures to qualify a statewide initiative for the November ballot that calls for subdividing California six ways. Any state split would, of course, require the approval of Congressional representatives from those 49 other non-Californian states—the odds of which lie somewhere between Fantasyland and Neverland.

Vicki Haddock spent more than 20 years as a San Francisco newspaper writer and editor.
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