July 15, 2018

When California Was the Bear Republic

A 1650 map by French cartographer Nicholas Sanson showing California as an island.
Last month, California voters paved the way for voting on an initiative that would split California into three states. I'm currently writing this at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, California, where I live. If Proposition 9, the "Three States Initiative," were to be approved by California's voters this November, I would be writing from the southern frontier of the great state of Northern California.

Although this blog is usually devoted to early modern history (roughly from the end of the Middle Ages, around 1450, to the French and Industrial Revolutions, around 1800), this post will be about a topic closer to home: the history of California partition and separatism efforts, and why that history matters.

It turns out that the elected officials of California actually did vote to split it up, back in 1855 and 1859. But these efforts by a sparsely-populated territory of a nation slipping into what would become the Civil War understandably failed to generate political momentum on the federal level. This marked the final stage of a pseudo-rebellion that doesn't get as much attention as that of the Lone Star state. And for good reason: it officially lasted for less than a month. Led from his base in Sonoma by a Mormon farmer and miner named William B. Ide, the California Republic officially declared independence on June 14, 1846,  and ended on July 9th of the same year.

It wasn't much of a revolution. But the independence declaration, which was led by Anglo colonists and coordinated with United States military commanders, had served its purpose: the US invasion of California during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) began in earnest with Commodore John Sloat's occupation of Monterey on July 1st. Within a matter of weeks, the short-lived Republic had begun to segue into the beginnings of a provisional government for the newly-established US territory of California.

The legacy of the republic lives on in one anachronistic respect: the California flag, with its famous bear and star and "California Republic" label. (And no, California was never supposed to be called the Pear Republic, despite what Snopes' unwise flirtation with Onion-style parody articles might've told you).

Detail from California's Proclamation of Independence with the earliest sketch of the Bear flag, June 14, 1846. 
The present-day version is somewhat altered from the early draft above, but maintains the general idea:

State flag of California flying above SF City Hall, via Wikimedia Commons.
Why does this episode matter? It doesn't, really, on the level of political history. It's easy to declare a revolution, but very difficult to maintain one. The independent Republic of California barely lasted three weeks, if indeed it can be even called independent. But I think that there's still something important about the story of the "Bear Republic": it reminds us that nationalism is usually built on illusions, and that national identities are never static.

One of the best books I've read on the origins of national identity, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, embeds this claim in its very title. Louis XIV existed as an historical personage, but his national legend had to be intentionally constructed, more or less out of thin air. So, too, with national identities in general. California is an excellent example: when some of my compatriots complain about Spanish-speakers who "need to speak English" because "this is America," I feel a sense of historical whiplash. After all, over one third of the United States (including California) was once a part of the Spanish empire. I'm writing this from within a stone's throw of a Spanish mission that was founded in 1791. Even leaving aside the fact that the United States has no official language (under the express direction of the Founding Fathers, who were well aware of the symbolic significance of that decision), it is just an historical fact that Spanish-speaking communities long predate English-speaking ones in a vast swathe of the present-day United States.

Map of Las Californias (here marked as "Nueva" and "Vieja") at the beginning of the 19th century, from Antonio García Cubas' Atlas Geográfico, Estadístico e Histórico de la República Mexicana (1857)
We tend to teach "American history" in schools by beginning with a hazy pre-Columbian past, then skipping right to the Thirteen Colonies and the Revolution. In the case of what is now California (as with the rest of the western and southwestern US), this is both flat out incorrect, from the perspective of historical accuracy. It's also just... boring. How much more interesting it is to reflect on the history of California as an entity that has actually passed through several different national governments with its name and regional identity at least somewhat intact: New Spain, Mexico, and now the United States. As you can see in the seventeenth-century "California Island" map that begins this post, the name and general territorial outlines of California are surprisingly old.

And in fact, the Bear Flag Revolt wasn't even the first independence movement of the region. In 1836, a group of inhabitants of what was then known as "Alta California" (to differentiate it from Baja) declared independence from Mexico. They were led by a Californio named Juan Alvarado, who declared himself de facto governor of the new nation and who later served as the official governor of Las Californias from 1837 to 1842. The region was eventually readdmitted to Mexico two years later, but only after having obtained a vague allowance that California remained a "sovereign state." The Alvarado iteration of California proclaimed its flag to be a red star on a white field: here we see the emergence of the first element in what would become the Bear Flag that flies today.

The last surviving "Lone Star of California" flag from the 1836 Alvarado rebellion, now housed at the Gene Autry Western Museum in LA. 
The Bear Republic is also an early episode in a surprisingly persistent trend in California politics: efforts either to secede or to split the state up. After all, the putative Bear Republic didn't actually map on to present-day California's political boundaries at all. In reality, the short-lived independent state of "California" is better thought of as a rebellion launched by Sonoma County, where the conspirators were based.

Less than ten years later, in 1855, the California State Assembly actually managed to successfully pass a proposal to divide the state into three parts: the state of Colorado (all southern counties as far north as Monterey); the State of Shasta (all northern counties north of Sonoma) and California in the middle. However, the bill died in the US Senate. Four years later, another proposal was launched to split California into two parts, again named California (north of the 36th parallel) and Colorado (south). Again, it failed.

My rough map of the 1855 three-state proposal.
In the twentieth century, proposals seemed to shift more into the orbit of a related phenomenon: the long-running, Quixotic efforts to create an independent state joining parts of western Canada and the US Pacific Northwest (the Nation of Cascadia) or to join the more libertarian, rural parts of Northern California and Oregon (the State of Jefferson).

Excerpt from a 1941 pamphlet advocating for the creation of the State of Jefferson, via the Oregon State Historical Society. 
Researching the more recent movements to divide California, I was somewhat surprised by how mainstream they have been. For instance, a 1992 proposal to split California into three states (North, Central and South) actually passed the California State Assembly (it died in the State Senate). More recently, voters in Tehama County approved separating from the State of California by a vote of 57 versus 43 percent, joining Yuba, Siskiyou, and Modoc Counties in a revived "State of Jefferson" bid.

As for the idea itself, although highly unlikely to pass, I don't think it's as crazy as some seem to think. For one thing, it's happened before: West Virginia split from Virginia, the Washington Territory split from the Oregon Territory, etc. And, in case you couldn't already guess my politics from what I wrote above, as a left-leaning voter I think that most proposals to split California would be beneficial in terms of hastening along the demographic wave that some political forecasters expect to stifle GOP hopes in the future: it's difficult for me to imagine any three-way split of the state that wouldn't result in at least two blue or blue-ish states, likely centered on SF and LA.

Various 21st century proposals to divide California, via Wikipedia.
On the other hand, as a former resident of Texas, I'm well aware of the rivalry between these two most powerful states in the union--not to mention the legendary Texan confidence when it comes to their states' pre-eminence in virtually any contest you care to name. Splitting up like a cell undergoing mitosis would presumably trigger that famous competitive instinct. And the thing is, Texans are very well positioned to compete in this game. When the Lone Star state entered the union, via the Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States, the legal agreement contained a provision that at least in theory allows Texas to divide into four more states, resulting in five total.

Back when I was a PhD student at UT Austin, I TAed for a professor who, when teaching this in his US history survey, joked that Texans were so proud of the distinctive shape of their state that, if this clause were ever triggered, Texans would assemble a team of mapmakers to find a way to split the state into five miniature Texas-shaped pieces! I tried putting together a mockup but gave up - it turns out that it's really hard to split a state into tiny versions of itself, unless we happen to be talking about the square ones. More than likely, a Texas split would look something like the regional map below:



But that's a story for another day. In the meantime, adiós from Alta California. 

May 23, 2018

A Medieval Emperor's Natural Language Experiment

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as depicted in the Shrine of Charlemagne, which he commissioned, c. 1215.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was known as the stupor mundi ("the astonishment of the world") among his European contemporaries. But he did not cut an impressive physical figure, at least according to the Baghdad-born chronicler Sibt ibn al-Jawzi.

"The Emperor was covered with red hair, bald, and myopic," al-Jawzi recorded. "Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market."

The quip didn't reflect any particular animus on the part of al-Jawzi. In fact, Emperor Frederick was well-regarded by many in the Muslim world. Dante, that most judgmental of all medieval writers, placed Frederick in the sixth level of his Inferno: the region reserved for heretics. The emperor was by all accounts deeply religiously heterodox, and was famous for feuding with the Pope and enlisting Muslim soldiers in his personal bodyguard.

The same unorthodox manner that had repelled Dante seems to have endeared Frederick to his rival Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt. A strikingly good-natured exchange took place during the two rulers' parlay over the fate of Jerusalem. Al-Kamil's muezzin, out of respect for the presence of a Christian king, had refrained from the morning call to prayer. Emperor Frederick supposedly rebuked him, saying: "I stayed overnight in Jerusalem in order to overhear the prayer call of the Muslims and their worthy God." Frederick's ability to maintain respectful relations with the Sultan resulted in a bloodless transfer of Jerusalem to the Emperor's rule, in stark contrast to previous crusades which had typically resulted in massive amounts of senseless violence.

Emperor Frederick II and Sultan Al-Kamil clasping hands at the gates of Jerusalem, from Giovanni Villani's Nuova Cronica, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 14th century. 
Frederick's most recent biographer, David Abulafia, calls Frederick a "scientific" emperor, noting his deep-seated interest in the natural world, his rejection of religious orthodoxy, and his support for astronomical research.

But a closer look into the Emperor's own "experiments" yields some surprises.

Frederick's interests are emblematic of the difference between medieval investigations of nature and those that we today associate with modern science. For one thing, they were insanely unethical by modern standards. According to the Franciscan monk Salimbene (who we should take with a grain of salt - Abulafia calls him a "shameless gossip"), these experiments included dissections of two men who had been fed meals hours earlier, to see how vigorous exercise influenced digestion. Salimbene also mentions a dubious-sounding incident in which Frederick compelled a man known as "Nicholas the Fish" (who was said to have been "condemned to an amphibious life" by his mother's curse!) to continually dive and fetch an underwater golden cup until he drowned.

Children playing, from a 1338 Alexander Romance (Bodleian, Oxford, MS Bodley 264).
According to Salimbene, Frederick was also perhaps the first figure in recorded history to conduct a language deprivation experiment.

What happens to infants who are deprived of all language? It's a question with profound implications, because it potentially sheds light on long-standing debates over the degree to which the human brain has a "language instinct," as Steven Pinker put it in his book of the same name. But it's an experiment so deeply cruel that it has only been entertained as an option by a handful of medieval and early modern rulers (a category of human beings for whom harshness and violence were sometimes lauded as a virtue).

Here's my attempt at translating from Salimbene's Latin, which you can read here in full here:

The second of [Frederick's] superstitions is that he wished to discover what sort of language and speech children developed, when growing up, if they were spoken to by no one. And so he ordered nurses to give milk to the infants, and for their breasts to be suckled, and for them to be bathed and cared for, but that they should be in no ways be played with or spoken to. The emperor wanted to know whether these infants would begin to speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or the Greek, Latin, or Arabic tongues, or whichever language had been spoken by the parents from which they were born. However, he labored in vain. Whether children or infants, they all perished. For it was not possible to live without the rejoicing and games and happy faces and blandishments of their caregivers and nurses. 
This inhumane episode, if it was actually ever carried out, is oddly reminiscent of some of the work of mid-20th century behavioralists, like B. F. Skinner, and their critics, like Harry Harlow. Harlow's interest in what he called the "pit of despair" afflicting isolated infants (which the psychologist apparently originally wanted to refer to with the even more medieval-sounding phrase "dungeon of despair") led him to conduct a now-infamous series of experiments involving the total isolation of baby rhesus monkeys.

Harlow found that even providing access to an inanimate "surrogate" mother (if the surrogate was soft to the touch) could provide what he called a "psychological base of operations" that increased survival rates and improved the baby's ability to cope with stressors. Monkeys with no such comfort quickly succumbed to profound psychological distress; some even died.

A Life Magazine photograph of one of the unfortunate infant monkeys involved in Harlow's infamous monkey experiments, circa 1959.
Without wading too much into psychological explanations, it may be worth pointing out at this juncture that Frederick II lost his own mother at the age of three. Medieval lives tended to be harsh, and perhaps his own experience of traumatic loss of a loving parent inspired Frederick's supposed dabbling in the dark side of behavioralist psychology.

Or maybe Salimbene, the monk on whom so much of what we supposedly know of Frederick depends, was simply slandering the emperor. It's hard to know at this point. But the episode does serve as a good reminder that many ideas and practices we associate with "modern science" often have much older (and stranger) antecedents than we realize.

Incidentally, the obsession with seeing Hebrew as the "natural language" of humankind would stick around for a very long time. As late as 1760, the author of A New Complete English Dictionary speculated that Hebrew was the "language which God taught Adam." However, he noted that "others hold for the Syriac, Childee, Ethiopian, or Armenian" as potential first languages.

What I find most interesting, though, about Frederick's cruel experiment is not the speculation about some hypothetical "first" language, but the question of whether infants are somehow naturally able to speak the language of their parents, even without exposure to them.

The idea seems to me tantalizingly similar to the theory of inheritance popularized by Jean-Bapistque Lamarck centuries later, toward the end of the eighteenth century.