California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Early California
California's Constitutional Convention of 1849
By WO1 Mark Denger
California Center for Military History
This is the period of California's sesquicentennials –among them are the discovery of gold, the Gold Rush, the formation into a State, and admission as the nation's 31st state. Of all of them, the three most important, in my mind, are the Constitutional Convention at Monterey in September and October of 1849, the California Constitution, and the admission of California into the Union as the thirty-first state, on September 9, 1850.

News of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico, which terminated the Mexican War, signed on May 30, 1848, reached California on August 7, 1848. A considerable population had been attracted to California by the discovery of gold in January of that year and the subject of forming a civil provisional territorial government had been agitated for nearly a year, but it did not assume an organized form until December 11, 1848, when a large meeting was held in San Jose, at which were adopted resolutions in favor of holding a convention to form a provisional territorial government . Twelve of the delegates that had been elected to the proposed convention met at San Francisco early in March, 1849, and issued an address to the people, in which it was recommended that a new election be held for delegates to meet in Convention at Monterey and that the delegates "should be vested with full power to frame a State Constitution to be submitted to the people of California.

The Congress in 1848 did not set up any government for California either territorial or state, and again adjourned early in 1849 without taking any action. Agitation for statehood was very active in both 1848 and 1849 so action was deemed necessary. So, following the adjournment of Congress, without any action for the creation of a government in California, Governor Bennet Riley decided to take action. He issued a proclamation on June 3, 1849, calling for an election of delegates.

Thus, the establishment of a State Government for California began with the issuance of an official proclamation dated June 3, 1849, issued by Bvt. Brigadier-General Bennet Riley, U.S.A., the then Military Governor, which recommended "the formation of a State constitution or a plan for a territorial government." According to this proclamation, the convention was to consist of thirty-seven delegates, to be chosen as follows: two from San Diego; four from Los Angeles; two from Santa Barbara; two from San Luis Obispo; five from Monterey; five from San Jose; five from San Francisco; four from Sonoma; four from Sacramento; and four from San Joaquin.

The election of delegates was held on August 1, 1849. The convention met in Colton Hall, in the town of Monterey, at 12 o'clock noon on Saturday, September 1, 1849, and admitted to seats 48 delegates (eleven delegates in excess of those contemplated by the proclamation).

The following officers of the body were chosen: President, Robert Semple; Secretary, William G. Marcy; Assistant Secretaries, Caleb Lyon and J. G. Field; Reporter, J. Ross Browne; Sergeant-at-Arms, J. S. Houston; Doorkeeper, Cornelius Sullivan; Interpreter and Translator, W. E. P. Hartnell; Clerk to Interpreter and Translator, W. H. Henrie. Hubert Howe Bancroft, in describing the convention, stated:

"Never in the history of the world did a similar convention come together. They were there to form a state out of unorganized territory; out of territory only lately wrested from a subjugated people, who were allowed to assist in framing a constitution in conformity with the political views of the conquerors."
So the delegates came to Monterey to create a state government, rather than a territorial government, out of a part of the territory ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They were called together by Bvt. Brigadier General Bennet Riley, U.S.A., and Military Governor of California, whose power to do so was certainly subject to some question.

Yet, the task of forming this state's Constitution was performed by men of almost every walk of life and not one was lacking in talent. Fourteen were lawyers, twelve ranchers, nine merchants, four military men, two printers, two surveyors, two of unknown professions, one banker, one physician, and one man "of elegant leisure." They came to California from states east of the Mississippi, except one from Oregon, and seven Californians. Six of these men had been in California all of their lives, one most of his life, one for twenty years, two for sixteen years, two for ten years, two for four years and ten for three years. The remainder, thirty-three in number, had been in California for less than three years. Of these, ten were from New York, seven from Missouri, four from Louisiana, three from Maryland, two from New Jersey, two from Virginia, two from Massachusetts, one from Connecticut, one from Illinois, one from Indiana, one from Ohio, one from Pennsylvania, one from Texas, and one from Wisconsin, along with one from France, Scotland and Spain.

At the evening session of the Constitutional Convention, on October 6, three of their number were appointed to serve on the engrossing committee, with instructions to have the Constitution written in English on parchment, together with a Spanish translation made by the official convention interpreter, also on parchment. The articles were adopted after the third reading on October 10th and 11th and the engrossed copy was signed at the afternoon session on the 13th of October.

Immediately after the signing of the Constitution the delegates proceeded in a body to the house of General Bennett Riley and expressed to him the thanks of the Convention for all of his assistance in the creation of a state government. In all, the State's Constitutional Convention was in session for forty-three days before it adopted the Constitution on October 10th and adjourned on October 13, 1849.

California's Constitutional Convention Journal and the engrossed copy of the original Constitution has been in the custody of the Secretary of State of California ever since 1849. Accompanying the Constitution is an Address to the People of California, which was addressed by a committee of ten, one delegate from each district. Likewise, on October 12, 1849, Military Governor and Brigadier-General Bennet Riley, U.S.A., issued the following proclamation to the People of California:
"The delegates of the people assembled in Convention have formed a Constitution, which is now presented for your ratification. The time and manner of voting on this Constitution, and of holding the first general election, are clearly set forth in the Schedule; the whole subject is therefore left for your unbiased and deliberate consideration.

"The Perfect (or person exercising the functions of that office) of each District will designate the places for opening the polls, and give due notice of the election, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the Schedule.

"The people are now called upon to form a government for themselves, and to designate such officers as they desire to make and execute the laws. That their choice may be wisely made, and that the government so organized may secure the permanent welfare and happiness of the people of the new State, is the sincere and earnest wish of the present Executive, who, if the Constitution be ratified, will, with pleasure, surrender his powers to whomsoever the people may designate as his successor."


The 1849 Constitution thus framed was ratified by the people of California at an election held on November 13, 1849. This Constitution served the state both before and after its admission into the union, serving as the basis of government for the State of California until 1879 when a new state constitution was adopted..


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