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Oregon senator almost became President; lucky for us, he didn’t

New York schemers sought to have Joseph Lane named President. Had they succeeded, the Civil War likely would have been the North seceding from the South, and possibly an independent Pacific Republic in the West.

Oregon Senator Joseph Lane posing for a formal portrait, circa 1860. (Image: Library of Congress)

The game of historical “what-if” is always tempting to play, but in most cases, it doesn’t have much of a place in real history studies. It’s like seeing a car driving south on Highway 99 and trying to guess where it’s headed.

Sometimes it’s useful, though — especially in cases where something terrible was avoided by the thinnest of margins.

Case in point: the almost-successful move in 1860 to prevent Abraham Lincoln from becoming President of the United States — and replace him with Oregon Senator Joseph Lane.

Yes — that Joseph Lane. General Joseph Lane, the first governor of the Oregon Territory, whose enthusiasm for the cause of the Confederacy and slavery continues to embarrass Oregonians to this day (especially in the county named in his honor).

Yes — that guy. President of the United States.

Here’s how it (almost) happened:

The process of nominating candidates for president in 1860 was unusually chaotic and messy; after all, the country was on the brink of civil war. The Republicans nominated the relatively moderate Abraham Lincoln with no more than the usual sturm und drang; it was on the other side of the aisle that the real drama was happening. Democrats were deeply split over the slavery issue.

After some tussles, the Dems nominated Stephen Douglas, a moderate (by the lights of his time) whose Kansas-Nebraska Act had inspired the founding of the Republican Party by allowing new states to choose for themselves whether they wanted legal slavery or not.

But for some of the delegates, Douglas wasn’t extreme enough on the slavery question. They wanted an outright pro-slavery candidate, and they wanted one badly enough that they walked out of the nominating convention after it became clear that Douglas would win, and formed their own party — the Constitutional Democrats, also known as the Southern Democrats. Then they nominated their own ticket for the Big House: John Breckenridge of Kentucky for President, and Joseph Lane of our fair state for Vice-.

A campaign flyer for the Breckenridge-Lane presidential ticket, showing John Breckenridge on the left and Oregon’s Joseph Lane on the right. (Image: Library of Congress)

So far, so uneventful, from a Constitutional standpoint. As would happen to the Republicans 50 years later with Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, the majority Democrats could only look on in rage as their split ticket lumbered toward inevitable defeat. The final tally, when it finally came, was just about what everyone expected: 1.8 million votes for Lincoln, 1.4 million for Douglas — and 850,000 for Breckenridge-Lane.

But along the road to that election day, things got very dicey. Presidents are, of course, selected by the Electoral College, rather than directly by popular vote. Each state’s voters voted not for a candidate directly, but for a slate of electors pledged to cast their votes for that candidate. Thus, if a state voted 49-51 for Lincoln’s electors, Lincoln got all those votes, not 51 percent of them.

So a month or so before the election, the people who wanted to deny Lincoln victory at any cost started looking for states in which they might be able to move that needle back across the 50-percent line. Very quickly they settled on New York.

New York was a solidly Republican doughnut with a massive Democratic hole called “New York City” in the middle. In the city, the masses of immigrants mobilized by Tammany Hall were stridently if cacophonously Democrats. And the state of New York swung a very big stick — the biggest in the country at 35 Electoral College votes.

Could the Democrats but swing that one state from red to blue, the Electoral College would, they hoped, be in deadlock. No president can be elected by the Electoral College without a majority. And without New York, Lincoln probably wouldn’t have one. He’d have more than Douglas or Breckenridge had, but not enough.

So, what would happen then? The whole selection process would be kicked over into the U.S. House of Representatives, which would be asked to pick one of the top three Presidential candidates, ranked by Electoral College votes. A clear majority would be required. If the House couldn’t arrive at one, it would go to the Senate, which would choose between the top two vote-getting Vice-Presidential nominees.

Either one of those outcomes would mean the end of Lincoln’s hopes.

So in late September, Lincoln’s enemies in New York hatched an eleventh-hour scheme they called “fusion.” The Fusion ticket would strategically split the electoral-college votes of the state among the three non-Lincoln candidates with the express purpose of denying all candidates a majority. That would mean the House would be called upon to choose among Lincoln, Breckenridge and (they thought) Douglas. (As it turned out, although he was the clear runner-up in popular polling, Douglas got only 12 votes in the Electoral College, so he would have been out.)

A Currier and Ives political cartoon from 1860 illustrating the expected effect of the splitting of the Democratic ticket between Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge. Oregon Senator Joseph Lane’s face is attached to the mule on the far right. (Image: Library of Congress)

In the House, the Republicans didn’t have a majority, so they wouldn’t be able to elect Lincoln without help from Dems, none of whom would give it. It was also possible that some Republicans, seeing the writing on the wall, would throw their support behind one of the Democrats. But the smart money, in both parties, was on the House being unable to pick a candidate, and having the ball kicked over to the Senate.

And the Senate, under the procedure laid out in the 12th Amendment, would have to pick between Hannibal Hamlin, who was Lincoln’s running mate — and Joseph Lane, who was Breckenridge’s.

Everyone knew Hamlin would not win that match-up. Joseph Lane of Oregon would, by default, win the pony.

So, how did it go? Well, of course, it didn’t work. New York City voted for the Fusion ticket overwhelmingly, but the rest of the state voted for Lincoln almost to a man (this was, of course, before women’s suffrage). The defeat was narrow but decisive.

The question is, had the parties come together just two weeks earlier, would they have had time to rally enough additional support to make it happen? Quite possibly, yes. And that almost inevitably would have put Joseph Lane — the Oregon man who may have been America’s last actual slave owner — in the White House.

And what would have happened then?

Historian Si Sheppard makes a good case for the possibility that the North would have seceded from the Union, rather than the South. Even if the South let the North go, bitter strife would have broken out in states like Illinois, whose north was solidly anti-slavery and whose south was not; and, of course, New York. That strife would probably have ripened into nationwide civil war; but it would have been a different sort of civil war, and one that would probably have been won by the northern rebels, who controlled most of the industry. Far-westerners, who’d flirted with the idea of forming an independent “Pacific Republic” just before the war, might have gone ahead and done it.

Then again, things might not have even had a chance to go that far. The electoral legitimacy of a President Joe Lane would have been almost nonexistent; he would be the beneficiary of a calculated exploitation of a technical flaw in the electoral system in flagrant disregard of the spirit of the rules. He would be a president no one had voted for, and a representation of a presidential ticket that only 18 percent of America had supported. Even Adolf Hitler got more than that in the 1932 election that brought him to power. Lane would have been easy pickings for any D.C. schemer with a better claim on legitimate authority and an inclination to back a coup d'etat — and who knows what might have happened after that?

We can’t know the specifics, of course. But one thing is for sure: America today would be a very different place if the “fusion” plot had succeeded. And not just different in the way of politics and national borders, either. As Sheppard points out, the Lincoln Administration was responsible for the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, the system of land-grant colleges and several other key components of modern America.

Would President Lane have done anything similar? Almost certainly not.

To date, no Oregonian has ever become President. (The closest we’ve come is Herbert Hoover, but when he was elected, Hoover hadn’t lived in the Beaver State for nearly 40 years.)

Having had a local resident become President is something of a feather in the cap of every state blessed with that honor. But all things considered, it’s probably a far greater blessing, for all Americans, that Oregon didn’t join that club in 1860.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred to Lane "openly and defiantly keeping his personal slave until the late 1870s." I have deleted this reference entirely because it refers to an African-American orphan boy whom Lane informally adopted. Whether it's fair to refer to the lad as a slave rather than a stepson turns on how he was treated, and I have been unable to find any information about that; therefore, I removed the entire reference. --f.jd.j

(Sources: Sheppard, Si. “Union for the sake of the Union,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 2014; Pintarich, Dick. Great and Minor Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon, 2003)