SAN DIEGO – Here at the first European settlement in what is now California, flying on the flagpost just below Old Glory, is a state flag with a bear and the words “California Republic.”
Now, a ballot initiative dubbed Six Californias would break the country's most populous state into six more conventionally-sized units. Instead of a state with 38 million people (45 percent more than next-largest Texas), the six new states would range in population from that of Ohio (7th largest) to that of Delaware (45th largest).
Funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, the initiative announced last month that it had gathered 1.3 million signatures, enough to get on the state's 2016 ballot. The state is "just too big and too centrally run," Draper said in a recent interview.
"At first people are saying 'no, no, no, what are you doing to my state?'" Draper said, recounting the initiative’s process of educating supporters. "When they start thinking about it, [they realize that] you are not really doing anything to the state itself, but you are making the government more responsive to the people."
Having the measure on the ballot just over two years from now, Draper said, "allows people to bring the thought of six Californias into their heart and soul, and to get behind one of their six states."
Under the initiative, a city like San Diego (part of “South California”) would no longer be dominated by industries and personalities in Los Angeles (the new capital of "West California") or San Francisco (which would run the state of "Silicon Valley"). Shy and rich in history – visited by explorers in 1542 and the first Spanish settlement in “Alta California” in 1769 – San Diego would no longer bow to the brasher L.A. or Bay Area.
The other three states in Draper's vision are "Central California," after the state's central valley with a locus in Fresno; "North California," near current state capital Sacramento; and new state of "Jefferson" in California's northernmost rural counties bordering Oregon.
How difficult is it to create a state? The Civil War showed that states may not secede from the union, but Congress still may admit new states. When created from an existing state, that state’s legislature must also consent.
It's happened five times before. Vermont left New York in 1791; Kentucky left Virginia in 1792, Tennessee left North Carolina in 1796, Maine left Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia left Virginia in 1863. Although Virginia had voted to secede from the U.S., the administration of Abraham Lincoln refused to recognize that action, enabling West Virginia to depart from its mother state.
There have been peculiar territorial complications for states formed from Mexican lands: particularly Texas, California and Utah.
Texans won their independence from Mexico following the defeat at the Alamo in March 1836. They later voted in support of the U.S. Congress admitting the state to the union in 1845. The legislation admitting Texas authorized the state to divide itself into five separate Texases.
California was also an independent republic, but for only three weeks in the summer of 1846. The Bear Flag Revolt prompting independence from Mexico quickly became engulfed in the broader 1846-48 U.S.-Mexican War, but it did bequeath the state its flag.
Latter-day Saint pioneers hadn’t yet entered Mexican territory near the Great Salt Lake when the U.S. Army sought recruits for a Mormon Battalion. Crossing present-day New Mexico and Arizona before ending up here and helping to build San Diego and Los Angeles before discharge, several former soldiers trekked north and were present when gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill.
The State of Deseret proposed the next year by Mormon settlers in Utah would have been bigger in land mass than either present-day California (163,696 square miles), or Texas (268,581 square miles). Its 490,000 square miles would have included the vast bulk of Nevada, plus large chunks of Arizona, southern California (including San Diego and Los Angeles), and western Colorado – plus tiny bits of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. It was even larger than Texas, as admitted to the union, at 389,166 square miles.
The gold rush’s population surge ensured statehood for California in the Compromise of 1850. In the same law, Congress created a slimmed-down Utah Territory. And in exchange for forgiving the Texas’ debts, Congress pared back the long Texas panhandle extending into Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.
It may simply be an accident of history that the continental U.S. has two super-sized states in California and Texas. The leaders of these states and Congress foresaw the need to make them smaller. In 1859 California’s legislature and governor approved an act splitting the state into a Northern and Southern California. But by then, the U.S. Congress was preoccupied by a crisis to split the Northern and Southern United States.
Six Californias and five Texases may be too many for the rest of the country. But it’s too soon to discount the merit in Draper’s grass-roots effort to make this state here a bit more manageable.
Drew Clark can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @drewclark