First gov was a man for his time and ours

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By Sherry Robinson

We’ve spent this past year celebrating the centennial of New Mexico’s hard-won statehood.
As we say goodbye to 2012 and the centennial, let me introduce you to James Silas Calhoun, the first governor appointed after New Mexico became a U. S. Territory.
Calhoun was the right man for the job, and if he were around today, he would have something to say about our current problems.
My own celebration of the centennial involved studying Calhoun in detail and I can now declare myself the state’s only Calhoun expert, only because nobody else found him a worthy subject.
Congress in 1849 makes today’s standoff look like a lawn party. Lawmakers fought sharply over each state proposed for admittance to the union.
Would it be a free or slave state? Talk of rebellion hung in the air with the cigar smoke. President Zachary Taylor wanted California and New Mexico to become states and tried to help the process along by sending secret agents.
One was James S. Calhoun, of Georgia, who arrived that spring as New Mexico’s first Indian agent. Calhoun was an ardent Whig, as was another politician from Illinois, Abe Lincoln.
Calhoun came by his appointments through powerful Georgia Whig friends. He had served multiple terms as state legislator and was so popular he was drafted for second and third terms as mayor of his town.
Calhoun had been a lawyer, judge, merchant, and cotton broker who owned significant real estate and had interests in banking and shipping.
Today we would call him a high-flying entrepreneur. Like others of this breed, he was largely wiped out by an economic downturn and panic in 1837.
In 1840 he snagged an appointment as U. S. Consul at Havana. In Cuba, Calhoun learned to speak Spanish. When he ended his stint, the Americans in Havana honored him for “impartial and courteous” service and for settling disputes amicably.
He further honed his Spanish during the Mexican War. Because this trumped-up war and its occupation were so poorly executed, troops had time on their hands. The educated men became tourists; Calhoun sought out his Mexican peers for political discussions.
So Calhoun arrived in New Mexico with some understanding and appreciation for the culture and language, but he found deep political divisions on the subject of statehood and between Nuevo Mexicanos and American newcomers.
The government expected Calhoun to manage more than 40,000 Indian people, most of them hostile. He must have known it was impossible, but applied himself as he always had, with honesty and diligence.
Twenty months later, on March 3, 1851, in the Palace of Governors, he was sworn in as governor. He championed statehood, voting rights, education, “special care of the weak and the innocent” and opposed capital punishment and gambling. A slave owner himself, he abhorred the presence of “Free Negroes.”
Most importantly, Calhoun understood that if Hispanic residents were to embrace their identities as citizens of the United States, they must have meaningful roles in creating a government. New Mexico had seen in 1847 the bloody Taos Uprising against U.S. authority, and Calhoun would diffuse several more attempts.
In appointing Hispanics to various offices, he earned their respect, along with the resentment of opportunists who thought the spoils belonged to Anglo Americans.
If Calhoun could return, he would preach inclusion, and that is his legacy.    
A subordinate, John Greiner, wrote, “No other man, I believe, could have kept this Territory from open rebellion.”
I recently gave a talk about Calhoun, and a man who works with teens told me afterward that the emotional divide on immigration reflects the nation’s deep fear of diversity.
And yet it’s something we do so well in New Mexico, he said, that we could serve as a model. I agree.
It’s in our history.