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The Plan to Break Up California Has Been Around As Long As the State Itself

Besides State of Jefferson, plans to split California have been around for 170 years.

PUBLISHED MAR 24, 2023 3:44 P.M.
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State of Jefferson is only the best-known of dozens of plans for counties to secede from the state of California.

State of Jefferson is only the best-known of dozens of plans for counties to secede from the state of California.   Visitor 7 / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Share-Alike 3.0 License

Agoston Haraszthy may not be the most well-known name from California history. But Haraszthy was a true pioneer. He was born in 1812. According to divergent sources, he came into the world either in Budapest, Hungary, or in Futak, a city then in Hungary and now part of Serbia. In any event, he grew up to join the Austro-Hungarian Emperor’s Royal Guard, become Lord Lieutenant of his county, marry a Polish noblewoman and serve in the national assembly.

By 1840, Haraszthy found himself on the wrong side of Hungary’s revolutionary politics, so he hightailed it across Europe, caught a boat across the Atlantic and quickly distinguished himself as the first permanent Hungarian resident of the United States. 

After touring New York, Washington DC (where he was a guest of Daniel Webster) and the Midwest, Haraszthy headed west to and settled in a small village of about 650 people known as San Diego, California. Almost right away, he became the town's most prominent businessman and politician. He later bought land up north in Sonoma County, planting vineyards and bringing new techniques to the craft of winemaking, earning himself the historical title “Father of California Viticulture.”

But something was bothering Haraszthy about living in Southern California. He believed that the rest of the soon-to-be-state neglected its southern half. In August of 1850, then, just a month before California became a state, Haraszthy became the father of another California tradition—the attempt to split the state in two. Or even more. 

California and Colorado

In the 21st century, more than 170 years after Haraszthy pushed to split the state into two states before it even became a state, the movement to divide California continues. Throughout California’s history there have been no less than 220 attempts to break up the state. 

Haraszthy’s push was taken up by Henry S. Foote, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi who clearly had an interest in California. Foote would move to San Francisco four years later and become a prominent member of the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. But that’s another story. 

In any event, in 1850, Foote introduced Haraszthy’s proposal to the Senate. His bill would have bifurcated California at approximately the 35th parallel, roughly the northern Santa Barbara County line today. The new northern state would retain the name California. What we know today as Southern California would be renamed Colorado. (The state now called Colorado would not be admitted to the union for another 26 years.) The measure was defeated in the Senate by 33 votes to 23.

Welcome to New California

Fast forward to 2023, when Shasta County’s probable next CEO, Chriss Street, is the vice president of a group called “New California.” According to the group’s website, New California is already a state, declaring “independence” on January 15, 2018. The site says that the state was formed to “throw off the bonds of tyranny” and that the current government of California is, in fact, “a tyranny.”

The group says that it is following the process laid out in the United States Constitution, meaning that it expects to receive approval from the state legislature and U.S. Congress. Under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, no new states can be formed from parts of one or more existing states without the approval of the states’ legislatures. And even that’s not enough. The U.S. Congress must okay the new, carved-out state as well.

Why the state legislature would be inclined to give the green light to the New California plan is unclear. But Street emphasized that he and the New California movement are not “secessionist.” In other words, they are not to be confused with “Calexit,” an initiative to pull California out of the United States altogether. Calexit, a term coined in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, is backed mainly by liberals in a group calling itself “Yes California,” which existed before the Trump era under the name “Sovereign California.”

New California, though obviously advocating a similar idea, is a separate movement from one that produced a 2018 ballot measure to split up the state. The movement was largely a movement of one. Billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper singlehandedly authored the ballot measure, coordinated the petition campaign to qualify it for the ballot, and paid for the whole effort out of his pocket. 

California Divided by 3

Draper’s Proposition 9 was a measure to carve up California three ways. Thanks to Draper’s vast resources, the initiative gathered enough support to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. But the State Supreme Court blocked it from appearing due to “significant questions” as to whether the proposition was valid.

Among those questions, the justices wanted to figure out whether the voters’ power to amend the California constitution, a power in place since 1911, includes the power to abolish the constitution altogether and all other state laws along with it—which dividing California into three new states would effectively accomplish.

In fact, Draper’s original plan was to split California into six new states. One of those would be perhaps unsurprisingly, the State of Silicon Valley—a proposal sparking criticisms that Draper’s real motivation was to create a plutocracy ruled by himself and his tech-billionaire buddies. To his own consternation, Draper claimed, however, that polling showed Silicon Valley as the region where his six-state idea garnered the lowest level of support.

Eventually, Draper scaled his ambitions back to the three-state plan that qualified for the 2018 ballot. Under that plan, the state would be divided into the states of Northern and Southern California, along a line about halfway between Fresno and San Jose. A third state, named simply California, would be formed along the coast, starting at Monterey and extending down to the southern end of Los Angeles County.

Why Break the State Apart?

Despite the repeated setbacks and Constitutional unlikelihood of any such thing ever happening, there remains an active subculture devoted to the idea of a California carve-out. Unlike in Haraszthy’s day, when his concern was that residents of Southern California “would be impoverished and driven away,” today the “new state” movement is centered largely in the rural counties of California’s northernmost regions. 

Between Haraszthy’s initial effort to split California, and later efforts such as the 2018 abortive ballot measure and a 2013 vote by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors to “pursue” leaving the state of California to form a new state of Jefferson, the movement to split the state has seen literally hundreds of incarnations. 

The first time the California legislature convened, in 1852, the issue of state division was a major subject of debate. At that time, residents of the Southlands claimed, not inaccurately, that they were taxed unfairly in comparison with the north. In that era, the southern region’s economy was dominated by agriculture, while the north was the epicenter of the mining industry. But residents in the north, according to an account in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, were taxed at about half the rate of their southern counterparts. 

The northerners, guided by editorials in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California newspaper, also claimed that the true motivation for the southern farmers’ effort to form a new state was nothing more than to allow slavery—which was banned in California. The Daily Alta California denounced the division campaign as a “deceitful scheme” to introduce the loathsome practice.

An editorial in the Los Angeles Star rebutted the accusation, saying that the slavery issue had been “lugged in” to the debate simply as a pretext to “stave off division.”

Economic circumstances have changed, and today it is the rural north that feels neglected by the central state government. They see themselves as subject to taxation without representation, noting that while Southern California is represented by 74 assembly members and 37 state senators, the counties north of the Bay Area have only six and three, respectively.

Of course, the reason for that is the sparse population of the northernmost counties, compared to the considerable density of regions from San Francisco down to San Diego. But that doesn’t stop Jeffersonians from seeing the disparity as unfair. 

The northern counties, heavily Republican as they are politically, should not be seen as unified in their desire to break from California. In 2015, a political action committee, Keep it California, was formed specifically to oppose the secession efforts.

“You’ve got a handful of residents that are grumpy and pining for the good old days, but that shouldn’t represent all the good people living in rural counties,” the PAC’s founder, Del Norte County resident Kevin Hendrick told the Los Angeles Times. “People need hope, yes. They don’t need false hope.”

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