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Civil War plotters hoped to get Oregon, West Coast to secede

Dreamed up by supporters of the old south, the plan envisioned an independent “Pacific Republic” as a slave state — to be stocked with slaves by a sort of bait-and-switch swindle. But the supporters misjudged public opinion badly.

An 1848 map of the Oregon Territory, as it appeared just after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War that same year. The vaguely imagined Pacific Republic likely would have had its border along the Continental Divide atop the Rocky Mountains. (Image: sonofthesouth.net)

(Note: This article quotes sources who use archaic terms for black, Asian, and Native American people which have become offensive in modern speech.)

Sometime around early 1860, as the United States of America teetered on the brink of what would become the Civil War, a small group of legislators from Oregon and California came together secretly to make plans.

They were all Southern Democrats, members of the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. In the previous year or two, they’d broken with the moderate Democrats so sharply that the two sides were barely on speaking terms. Indeed, later that year one of their number — Oregon Senator Joseph Lane — would be joining John Breckenridge to form a third-party ticket for the 1860 Presidential election. That would split the Democratic voters, so it seemed at least a good possibility that the next President, to be elected later that year, would be an anti-slavery Republican — probably Lincoln.

The conspirators all knew what would happen if Lincoln were elected.

Joseph Lane as he appeared when he served as the Oregon Territory’s delegate in Congress in the 1850s. Lane later served as Territorial Governor and as one of Oregon’s first U.S. Senators. (Image: Library of Congress)

Senator William Gwin and Governor-Elect Milton Latham of California had an idea that they wanted to propose. The idea was that when the South seceded, so would the West. The country west of the Rockies would declare itself as an independent nation, calling itself “Pacific Republic.”

“The Pacific Republic was to be an aristocracy after the model of the ancient republic of Venice, all power being vested in a hereditary nobility, the chief executive being elected on a very limited suffrage,” historian Dorothy Hull writes.

There was, alas, a subtle problem with the scheme: Very few Californians, Oregonians and residents of the Washington Territory had slaves. And you can’t found a pro-slavery nation when your population of slaves is numbered in the dozens. So, to properly outfit the new land with the “livestock” it would need, the conspirators envisioned an international swindle of breathtaking audacity and moral repulsiveness:

“Slaves,” Hull continues, “were to be procured by inviting coolies, South Sea islanders and negroes to immigrate to California, and then reducing them to slavery.”

 

Although this proposal was by far the most audacious suggestion of West Coast independence, it wasn’t a new idea. The first stirrings of a secessionist movement came in 1848.

1848 was the year the federal government finally granted Oregon territorial status, after a two-year delay while Congresscritters duked it out over whether slavery would be legal there or not. During this time, the federal government was in the hands of the Democrats, and most Oregonians were Democrats too.

Then came the elections of late 1848, in which the Whig party was voted into power behind Millard Fillmore. The Whigs immediately gave all the appointed Democratic office-holders their walking papers, and started replacing them with their friends and political cronies. And because these decisions were being made back east, the replacement civil servants were almost all newcomers from the Eastern Seaboard.

These officials soon found themselves up against Oregon’s new but powerful Democratic Party machine, headed up by the charismatic and pugnacious editor of the Oregon Statesman, Asahel Bush. Tensions mounted to unbearable and business-halting levels. Something, everyone knew, had to be done.

By 1851, things were so intolerable that Democrats were whispering of secession. Whig newspaper The Weekly Oregonian openly accused the Democrats of “design(ing) at no distant day to throw off their allegiance to the United States Government and attempt to set up an independent republic.”

But then, in 1852, Democrat Franklin Pierce won the national election; the Whig office-holders were sent packing; and Asahel Bush and his cronies simmered down and got back to work.

Eight years later, though, Bush was on the other side of this fight. The state Democratic Party he autocratically led was resolutely moderate by the standards of the day, and the acrimony between his “Salem clique” and Joseph Lane’s pro-slavery Southern Democrats was getting harsher by the day.

So when he got wind of the plot to secede, this time Bush was having none of it.

“What a ridiculous figure would the Pacific Republic cut among the nations,” he jeered. “With a population of little more than half a million …. With Mexico upon one side, British Columbia on the other, a defenseless sea-coast in front, and a horde of hostile savages and marauding Mormons in the rear, and unable to protect ourselves on any side, we could only preserve our existence by forming an alliance with some powerful government which could afford us protection at the price of our liberty.”

 

Once the cat was out of the bag, word of the plot went through Salem and Portland like chain lightning, and the reaction was almost universally negative. It irreparably damaged Joseph Lane’s reputation and ended his career in Oregon politics. And it galvanized Asahel Bush’s moderate Democrats into making an informal coalition with the new state Republicans to form a sort of fusion ticket for the state’s senators, with the sole object of locking Lane and his Southern Democrats out of power.

(As a side note, the Republicans were mostly in Portland and Bush’s Democrats were mostly in Salem — and the Southern Democrats were scattered throughout the hinterlands. This may have been the first outbreak of that urban-rural divide that’s still a part of Oregon politics today.)

The fusion ticket did plenty of wrangling, but they needed each other to get the job done, so finally they did, sending Democrat James Nesmith and Republican Ned Baker to the Senate to replace Lane and Delazon Smith. It was a sign of how low Lane’s star had sunk that he wasn’t even able to carry his home state for the Breckenridge-Lane Presidential ticket that year. Oregon went for Lincoln, and to add insult to the Southern Democrats’ injury, changed its unofficial motto from “Alis Volat Propriis” (“Flies with Own Wings”) to “The Union.”

(And, by the way, if you’ve ever wondered how Oregon got stuck with such a boring state motto, well — now you know. The motto wouldn’t become official, though, until 1957, in preparation for the 1959 state centennial.)

In California, the Pacific Republic scheme still had legs well into 1862. But in Oregon, nobody in high office ever seriously considered West Coast independence again.

(Sources: Hull, Dorothy. “The Movement in Oregon for the Establishment of a Pacific Coast Republic,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1916; Portland Weekly Oregonian, 7-28-1851; Salem Statesman, 7-17-1860; 12-10-1860)