A debate has been raging between the left and the right over which year best defines the United States and the founding of the nation. Is it 1619 when the first enslaved people from Africa were brought to this country to what was then the colony of Virginia? Or is it 1776 when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence?
Commentator Joe Mathews says both sides have got it wrong. In this edition of Zócalo’s "Connecting California", he says the modern nation we call home started in 1848 with California statehood and the end of the Mexican-American War.
Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
America, you’ve got the dates wrong.
Your polarizing debate over which year marks the real beginning of the U.S. — the arrival of enslaved people in 1619 or the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — has come to resemble what this nation was like before California entered the Union:
Boring as hell.
For all the differences they express in school boards and on cable TV, partisans of 1619 (who see America as founded on slavery) and 1776 (who tout the whitewashed nonsense that America was founded on freedom) share a common prejudice: East Coast bias. The New York Times’ 1619 Project, as first published 2019, gave California just three cursory mentions. The Trump administration’s 1776 report, supposedly devoted to American greatness, didn’t mention America’s greatest state even once.
So, instead of looking back to the 17th century Virginia colony or to an 18th century country with as many people as today’s Riverside County, the nation should gaze west toward reality. Like a party that only truly starts when the coolest kid saunters in, the United States — antically ambitious, deliriously diverse, and kaleidoscopically cruel — didn’t really get rolling until California arrived in 1848.
Indeed, two 1848 events — California’s Gold Rush and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — essentially re-founded the United States with different peoples, borders, and aspirations.
The Gold Rush drew not pious Puritans but unrefined fortune-seekers, from Asia and Latin America and other parts of the world, to transform a slow, plodding country into an impatient and volatile one.
The Gold Rush, as historian H.W. Brands wrote in “The Age of Gold,” was “one of those rare moments that divide human existence into before and after.” While “the old American dream … was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard, of Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmers, of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year, the new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck.”
Gold mining, which required more capital and mechanization, hastened the arrival of the Industrial Age and of the giant financial institutions that rule us to this day. In Europe, Karl Marx, having released his manifesto in 1848, noted California’s creation of a “new stage of development” and began writing “Das Kapital.”
The second great event of 1848 — the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended war between Mexico and the U.S. — brought California, New Mexico, Nevada, and parts of Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado into the Union. The treaty also made official the 1845 annexation of Texas, the only state with credible pretensions as a California rival.
This historic, massive land grab all but negated the country’s founding fairy tale of underdog colonists overthrowing the British tyranny. 1848 made plain that this nation would be built on conquest. The treaty ended what Ulysses S. Grant called “the most unjust war ever waged against a weaker nation by a stronger” and established a pattern of expansion by bullying militarism.
It also launched a new era of American horrors.
One irony of the 1619 Project is that, by focusing so extensively on slavery, it let the nation off the hook for the full scope of its awfulness. 1848 was the beginning of California inventing rationales as diverse as its people to justify their imprisonment en masse. This period saw the invention of Chinese exclusion, the revocation of the citizenship rights of Mexican Americans and a government-directed genocide against California’s indigenous peoples.
Yes, California banned slavery in its 1850 constitution. But many horrors of the 19th century West have never disappeared. Mass incarceration and police violence remain facts of life. Violence against people of Asian heritage is on the rise again. The Southern border remains a militarized excuse to deny the rights of migrants and their loved ones. Wage slavery is as 21st century as an Amazon warehouse.
Contemporary politics is also rooted in 1848. California and Texas represent our most consequential industries — technology and energy — and determine much of what passes for governance these days.
In 1619, this wasn’t a country. In 1776, we invented a myth, not a nation. 1848 was when America became the oversized monster that we love, and love to hate.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.