WALNUT CREEK -- In one of a handful of public events aimed at commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War -- with a salute to the national traveling exhibit on display at the Walnut Creek Library through Feb. 8 -- historian Kevin Starr began his Jan. 7 library presentation by drawing a direct line between great libraries and supportive elected officials who value them.
"I'm honored the mayor is here tonight," Starr told his audience. "(As a writer) you sit at your desk scribbling away, saying, 'I wonder if anyone cares about this?' It's wonderful to hear from readers tonight."
Launching into a fast-paced tour like the tank platoon leader he once was, Starr -- now California State Librarian Emeritus -- suggested physical signs of the Civil War's effect on California were limited due to its distance from the conflict and few California-born soldiers and heroes.
"But the admission of California into the union in September 1850 set in force the dynamics that led up to the conflict," he said. "The slave states were desperate to reach the Pacific and to extend the system of slavery. With Texas included as a slave state, Southern California stood in the way of their goal to reach the Pacific."
Referencing the recent near-plunge off the fiscal cliff in Washington D.C., Starr joked that Congress in 1848 behaved similarly; failing to grant territorial status authorizing slavery and instead, "they walked away from the issue and did nothing."
Until 1850, the commander of the army was the state's civil governor, he explained. Without the gold rush, California's trajectory would have been different, but even with the "remarkable individuals" gold attracted to the area, Starr said people began to resist the "hobbled-together figure of law."
Provincial Gov. Bennet Riley didn't like the situation and issued a proclamation discussing the state's legal impasse caused by the military governing its citizens.
"He advised (the people) to organize themselves, even though he had no authority to do such a thing," Starr said. "It was a breathtaking proclamation, in my opinion."
California declared itself a free state and -- after nine months of acrimonious debate -- became the country's 31st state on Sept. 9, 1850.
The state's subsequent cases of "legal trumping" over slavery may not have spurred violence, Starr suggested, but they underscore the larger history of California and the nation as it began to tear itself apart over the issue.
"As the Civil War approached, the Hispanic support was decidedly Union," he said. "When war broke out, two Hispanic regiments joined 500 other young men and mustered in as the second battalion to fight in Massachusetts."
California philosopher Josiah Royce suggested the state's history was shaped by three phases -- frontier, province and "a condition of higher provincialism."
Starr said this meant a headstrong, self-seeking frontier society grew to become conscious of themselves as a regional force, with a definitive culture. Institutions of learning were established and landscape artists found favorite subjects in Mount Shasta and other iconic images.
The construction of the transcontinental railroad solidified a vital East-West connection, eliminating thoughts of secession or the prospect of California being taken over by the English.
"California became less remote," he said.
Asked about the importance of the state's gold and about mercury from the Alamedan Mines, he said neither item stayed in California for long and were used to fill the country's reserves.
For a complete list of upcoming Lincoln exhibit events, visit www.WCLibrary.org or call 925-935-5395.