Constitutional Convention

Colton Hall was the site of California's first Constitutional Convention held in 1849.

Between the first of September and the thirteenth of October, 1849, Colton Hall was the site of a convention called by Governor Riley to draft California's first Constitution. Bayard Taylor of the New York Herald-Tribune reported that "...the building was probably the only one in California suited to the purpose."

Forty-eight delegates elected from ten districts debated complicated issues such as the location of the eastern boundary line -- the Sierra Nevada Mountains or the Rocky Mountains. Slavery was forbidden in this historic document and after some heated discussion, San Jose was chosen as the first State Capital. Before voting, each resolution and article was translated into Spanish for the benefit of the eight delegates who spoke only that language.

Today, Colton Hall retains its historic character. Authentic items and replicas recreate the room where the delegates met, debated, and approved a remarkable document.

More About the 1849 Constitutional Convention

In the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded to the U.S. the lands that make up much of the Western United States. At almost the same time, the discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Creek set off an international emigration into California that dramatically altered the social and political character of the region. Californians believed that the United States government was moving too slowly in making decisions regarding the newly acquired western lands. Brigadier General Bennett Riley, head of the military government established to govern California, decided to call a constitutional convention in Monterey, California. He took this action to ensure not only law and order in the new land but also proper representation of the people in Washington, D.C.

Forty-eight delegates, of interesting and diverse backgrounds, met in Colton Hall for the convention. Thirty-six of the men were born in the United States; six were native-born Californios, and the remaining came from Spain, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Switzerland. Their backgrounds varied, but law, ranching and merchandising predominated. Because not all the delegates spoke English, the proceedings were translated into Spanish by English merchant of Monterey, William Hartnell. For six weeks the men worked on creating California’s first constitution. They met in the small schoolrooms of the first floor of Colton Hall on specific issues, then came together in the large second story hall to debate and vote. The work was completed and the final constitution, written in both English and Spanish, was signed on October 13, 1849.

Important issues were debated during the convention. Article XII, which dealt with the placement of the new states’ eastern boundary, took up many days of debate. The Sierra Nevada was finally settled upon because it was felt the mountain range made not only a natural boundary, but also a defensible border. A unanimous vote proclaimed California as a free state, a decision that was of vital importance to the balance of power between the slave-owning states and those, which stood against slavery. The first capital of California was designated to be San Jose. Rights of suffrage, who could hold an elected office, education, and women’s property rights were some of the issues that were settled during the convention. When the constitution was signed, General Riley addressed the assembled delegates with these words:

"I am satisfied now that the people have done right in selecting delegates to form a constitution. They have chosen a body of men upon whom our country may look with pride; you have formed a constitution worthy of California. And I have no fear for California while her people choose their representatives so wisely. Gentlemen, I congratulate you upon the successful conclusion of your arduous labors; and I wish you all happiness and prosperity."
After the people of California approved the new constitution it was sent to the United States government. It took nearly a year for Congress to deliberate over the question of admitting California into the Union. Finally, on September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the documents declaring California the 31st state.

Bayard Taylor described the final day of the Convention in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 13, 1849:

The members met this morning at the usual hour to perform the last duty that remained to them -- that of signing the Constitution.

They were all in the happiest humor, and the morning was so bright and balmy that no one seemed disposed to call an organization. Eventually, they were called to order, and they proceeded to affix their names to the completed Constitution. At this moment, a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the Government buildings, and streamed out on the air.

A second afterward the first gun boomed from the fort, and its stirring echoes came back from one hill after another, 'til they were lost in the distance. As the signing went on, gun followed gun from the fort, the echoes reverberating grandly around the bay, 'til finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout: “That's for California!”

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