The Spirit of California

“BRING ME MEN TO MATCH MY MOUNTAINS” reads the inscription of the California State Capitol Office Building in Sacramento. The romanesque structure is located in the State Capitol Mall, near the convergence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. As many are familiar with the history, gold was discovered in the foothills east of Sacramento in 1848. The territory was at that time under control of the Mexican government, known as Alta California. The rush of people moving to the state chasing the anecdotal opportunity of riches, along with the subsequent annexation into the United States, plotted a course of development for the land. By the 1880s the Capitol Building, which stands as the centerpiece of the Capitol Mall, was completed – a mere 30 years after statehood and the discovery of gold.

The American dream can be distilled as the transcendence of inherited economic class due to the effects hard work and an opportune meeting with Lady Fortune. The land of opportunity provides risk and reward, with no promises. Consider John Sutter, whose New Helvetia fort in present day Sacramento was encroached on by those pursuant to the Gold Rush opportunity, including those who previously worked for him. His land was taken, his cattle were stolen, and his fort was abandoned. A poor German immigrant, at one time a wealthy landowner with governing power in the region, died broke in Pennsylvania with all he had unjustly taken from him.

Steeped in the Greek and Roman traditions, the American experiment of government is a framework for individual interaction, offering the protection of rights and guarantees to freedoms. The embrace of chance, fate, or fortune, paired with the dedication of hard work should resonate with the proprietor seeking to make a future for himself, which was seemingly well-understood by those who pioneered the paths to this promised land. The calculated rewards were worth the risks for those brave enough to have ventured to the swift-moving, forward-thinking land of the golden west.

Today’s California is a different societal landscape – 39 million people and counting. It’s one of the largest economies in the world and a sought-after location for travel and tourism due to its weather and scenic variety. However, in consideration of the current political environment, a small exodus may be in effect. Stifled by the top-down legislation coming from the Capitol, businesses are leaving and seeking opportunity (or tax efficiency) elsewhere. This is not the California of yesteryear, with its promise of undiscovered gold, untamed fertile valleys, and untapped potential. At a time not long ago this land was attractive for the chance of personal reinvention and discovery; a land calling for men to match its mountains.

I found myself in the Capitol Mall in Sacramento on an overcast weekday midmorning. The Christmas decorations and desolate sidewalks, pending the (second) pandemic shutdown of the city, set the stage for my introspection and meandering. Walking the perimeter of the Capitol brings attention to the richness of the soil and climate of this land; a variety of tree species from all over the world stand tall around historic buildings they surround. The reason for my unplanned weekday visit was due to an unfortunate circumstance – my newborn son was transferred to a pediatric hospital in Sacramento. After his condition stabilized in the intensive care unit, we were moved to the general pediatric floor, where only a single parent was allowed to accompany each patient. My wife and I were left to high-five at the door to switch off with our bedside time for our son. Frustrating to say the least, the top-down policy, motivated more by public perception than situational utility, provided an opportunity for me to follow my curiosity. Not often found with “time to kill”, I was grateful for the chance to pursue whatever was of interest at the moment (see: Taleb’s rational flâneur).

Driving through Sacramento is to be surrounded by a contrast of California’s history and modernity. The glorious (for America) architecture of the Capitol Building; the homeless tent camp down the street. The marble-etched serif inscriptions of poets; the fenced-off memorial to fallen law enforcement officers. The Latin phrases throughout the square; the remnants of partially-removed graffiti across the marble columns. The aesthetic of the Leeland Stanford mansion; the towering office building (filled with fluorescent lighting and cubicles) rising behind it. The historic photographs of people walking in the square; empty streets from a stay-at-home order.

We are now five generations or more removed from the initial scramble for natural resources. The low-hanging fruit has been claimed and the gold was scavenged, first by hand and after with hydraulic mining. Even during the Gold Rush, the hopeful sole proprietor only lasted for a short time. The leveraged resources of a company of a group of men provided a competitive advantage over a single individual and within only a few years there was no opportunity to find gold without going to work for another. The decade came and went; a decade of boom and bust.

The Gold Rush is iconic because it is the embodiment of an encounter with Lady Fortune: to travel west to a foreign land, into the unknown, and secure for yourself opportunity in the form of riches. The narrative was compelling enough to convince thousands to make the journey and leave all they knew behind.

The outcome of the Gold Rush was only a handful of true winners, with secondary benefits of agriculture and commerce for those who made the leap. Perhaps the spirit of California is the risk-taking inherent in the sojourn to a new landscape and a willingness to try a new experience. It is the embrace of fate, to stand emboldened in front of the Capitol’s grand architecture of yesteryear and rededicate yourself to matching the magnanimity of the mountains, with no promise of success, only with determination and a hope.

This is still the land of opportunity.

The Coming American

By Sam Walter Foss

July 4, 1894

Bring me men to match my mountains, 
Bring me men to match my plains, 
Men with empires in their purpose 
And new eras in their brains. 
Bring me men to match my prairies, 
Men to match my inland seas, 
Men whose thoughts shall pave a highway 
Up to ampler destinies, 
Pioneers to cleanse thought’s marshlands, 
And to cleanse old error’s fen; 
Bring me men to match my mountains– 
Bring me men! 

Bring me men to match my forests, 
Strong to fight the storm and beast, 
Branching toward the skyey future, 
Rooted on the futile past. 
Bring me men to match my valleys, 
Tolerant of rain and snow, 
Men within whose fruitful purpose 
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow, 
Men to tame the tigerish instincts 
Of the lair and cave and den, 
Cleanse the dragon slime of nature– 
Bring me men! 

Bring me men to match my rivers, 
Continent cleansers, flowing free, 
Drawn by eternal madness, 
To be mingled with the sea– 
Men of oceanic impulse, 
Men whose moral currents sweep 
Toward the wide, infolding ocean 
Of an undiscovered deep– 
Men who feel the strong pulsation 
Of the central sea, and then 
Time their currents by its earth throbs– 
Bring me men!