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When California (Briefly) Became Its Own Nation

September 9, 2020 in History

By Stephen Wood

Following the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, California existed as an independent nation—for 25 days.

At dawn on June 14, 1846, a ragtag group of about 30 gun-toting Americans entered Sonoma, a small town in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Prepared to take the town by force, they instead sat for brandy with Col. Mariano Vallejo of the Mexican army and accepted his surrender. For the next 25 days, California was an independent nation: the California Republic.

Known as the Bear Flag Revolt, a reference to the short-lived republic’s flag, this event was something between an American invasion and a miniature war of independence. Though the fighting was limited and the country it established lasted less than a month, the Bear Flag Revolt led directly to the American acquisition of what is now its most populous state.

Rebellion Begins Brewing in Texas

In the mid-19th century, Mexico still controlled vast swaths of the what is now the Southwest United States. In 1835, a revolt began in the Mexican province of Texas. Although the United States was officially neutral, Americans like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston led a rebellion against Mexican rule, and hundreds of Americans, including members of the U.S. Army, joined the fight. The result was the Republic of Texas, an independent nation ruled by American settlers, which was then absorbed into the United States in 1846—triggering the Mexican-American War.

According to Dr. Linda Heidenreich, whose book This Land Was Mexican Once examines the Latinx experience of the Bear Flag Revolt and similar insurrections, the annexation of Texas made it clear to the Californios—Mexican residents of the province of Alta California—that their government was too poor, too unstable and too weak to stop American settlers from overrunning California. Some argued in favor of independence. Others considered inviting the United States to take over.

“If you read the reports of these meetings [of Californios], these people saw it coming,” Heidenriech says. “They were scattering for a plan, and it just wasn’t there.”

The U.S. Sets Its Sights on California

American explorer, military officer, and politician John Charles Fremont.

Enter Charles Frémont, a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Newly elected President James K. Polk, whose annexation of Texas was about to set off the Mexican-American War, sent Frémont on an expedition to survey the area of the Great Basin and the …read more


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5 Ways the French Helped Win the American Revolution

September 9, 2020 in History

By Suzanne McGee

The Marquis de Lafayette was only the beginning.

How crucial were the French to helping colonists win the American Revolution?

An iconic oil painting of the British surrender at Yorktown, now hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, perfectly captures the partnership. As the grim, resigned British general at the picture’s center prepares to hand over his sword, he is flanked on one side by an array of Americans, underneath a waving Stars and Stripes flag—and on the other by French officers and volunteers, beneath the white and gold banner of France’s Bourbon monarchs.

Artist John Trumbull’s decision to portray the two forces as equal combatants against the British signals how much America’s founding fathers owed to the French in their battle for independence. The decision by Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (better known as the Marquis de Lafayette) to leave France and enlist with George Washington’s forces is well-known to many. But Lafayette was only a prelude to massive French support, the forerunner of a deep relationship that proved vital to the revolution’s success. Here are five ways the French helped Americans win their freedom.

1. They provided ideological underpinnings.

Patrick Henry delivering his famous speech on the Rights of the Colonies, before the Virginia Assembly, convened at Richmond, March 23, 1775.

“Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry’s forceful declaration to the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775, proved a tipping point, convincing his fellow delegates—including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—to vote in favor of committing Virginian troops to the looming revolutionary battle. Henry’s rhetoric echoed the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential 1762 work, The Social Contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

By the 1760s, the founding fathers and their peers eagerly devoured French political philosophy. “It became almost a patriotic duty for colonists to admire France as a counterpoise to an increasingly hostile England,” wrote historian Lawrence Kaplan of Kent State University. The British may have triumphed militarily over their French rivals in the global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War. But America’s future founders disparaged the way the British (in their eyes) trampled on their own constitution, turning instead to France for new ideas about freedom and independence.

Rousseau, for one, spoke of sovereignty residing not in a monarch, but in the …read more