David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

AmWest Post #7: West as Exception, Norm, Precedent…?

This week’s main reading, An Aristocracy of Color by D. Michael Bottoms, formerly of our own George Mason University History Department, focuses on the application of Reconstruction laws and post-Civil War constitutional amendments–based on the specific circumstances of the South but national in scope–in California specifically, as well as in other parts of the West.

Bottoms closely examines how the ethnic diversity of California changed application of these laws and amendments. He argues that, particularly, Chinese and African Americans distinguished themselves from each other in such a way that they secured their rights, yet paradoxically reinforced the state’s racial hierarchy that Anglo immigrants to the state established in the 1850s.

For this post I would like to focus on some of this excellent book’s implications for wider conversations not just about Western history but U.S. history. Particularly, I’d like to extend some of what Bottoms says in his short and perhaps understated epilogue. I say “perhaps understated” because what Bottoms has to say has broader applications than this focused book lets on.

Bottoms argues for the importance of the California story as not simply an exception–important as it was–to the typical story told about Reconstruction, but as precedent-setting for the shape of future civil rights movements and legal history around racial issues.

This, in addition to previous readings from our class, raises the broad question for me about the degree to which we can see experiences in the West as exceptional, normative, precedent, or some combination thereof? I realize that’s an extremely broad question, worthy of (and I’m sure addressed) in a grand theory book along the lines of The Legacy of Conquest.

Bottoms hints that he sees, at least in the particular story he tells, the notion of West as exception, then precedent.

In some ways, the idea of West-as-precedent both turns Turner on his head and might reinforce his thesis. Turner argued that much of what could be considered U.S.-American national character was formed in the West. The idea of West-as-precedent refutes and reinforces that in showing that the experiences of intermingling people in the West–not the experience of white people simply sweeping over the others and interacting with a wild place of free land–is what set the tone for the future of the United States.

Besides wondering about our old friend Turner, from Bottoms’s epilogue, I also found myself wanting to know more about the short- and long-term precedents set by cases and experiences from California. To what extend did Ward v. Flood influence Plessy v. Ferguson, for example, beyond a short mention that it receives? To follow how Bottoms rightfully addresses legal history, beyond the case law cited in Plessy, how influential was that case in establishing inequality cloaked as “separate but equal” in the Jim Crow South? How much were precedents from California specifically referenced in other places?

These questions are not central to Bottoms’s focused story and don’t detract from his argument, but I hope that future scholarship will address them.

I’m also curious as to whether California’s significance to the broader story was more because of the precedent it set for the future, or whether its significance comes from California’s experiences making a difference in the East at that time. How much did Easterners see what was happening in California as relevant to what was happening in their part of the country, especially the former Confederacy during Reconstruction and in the next decade? If they didn’t, why not? Again, this is peripheral to the story Bottoms is telling, but something that I hope future research will address. Understanding these questions would help us further understand the importance of the West in U.S. history.

Commenting

I commented on Carol’s blog this week.

2 Comments

  1. David,
    You bring up several good points to consider in this week’s blog entry.

    Personally, I can’t imagine Frederick Jackson Turner including blacks, Chinese and Indians as part of his vision of the American West. He doesn’t speak directly to such a situation; if he considered them at all, my guess would be that he’d see them as foreigners, “savages,” as compared to white “civilization.”

    I agree with you that California’s history should be viewed as part of a broader national narrative. While western history retains its historic originality, it adds its identifying factors to those of other parts of the country — all of which make America the unique country it is.

  2. I definitely agree that California history deserves to be seen as part of the national narrative, but the truly fascinating thing for me personally was that the comment runs both ways. I always thought of Reconstruction as “Eastern history” with little relevance to California, and my learning of California’s racial problems and tensions was always somehow separate from those of the rest of the country. As silly as it may be, my big lightbulb moment was not necessarily that the history of California had relevance to the nation, but that the history of the nation had relevance to California.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: