Lincoln Declined To Be Governor Of Oregon

This is huge! Oregon History is beginning to make sense! I may have discovered why John Fremont and Lincoln had it out for each other.

John Presco

How Lincoln, Civil War helped shape Oregon

  • Updated: Feb. 11, 2012, 3:00 p.m.|
  • Published: Feb. 11, 2012, 2:00 p.m.


More than 60,000 books have been written about the American Civil War, and 16,000 on Abraham Lincoln alone. Yet almost none deals with the Civil War in the Oregon Country or Lincoln’s links with the region.

Why is that? Why haven’t writers connected the Pacific Northwest with the Civil War and President Lincoln?

The predilections of scholars help explain these oversights. When Americans celebrated the centennial of the Civil War in the 1960s, historians viewed the conflict primarily as a military matter. At the same time, many disciples remained in thrall to the ideas of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who pointed to a westward-moving frontier as the shaping force in American history, thereby de-emphasizing Eastern influences on the West.

These two tendencies among historians meant that nonmilitary subjects and the distant frontier of the Oregon Country gained little space in the Civil War story. Indeed, the leading authority on the mid-19th century Pacific Northwest, Robert W. Johannsen, exhibited this view by depicting residents of the Oregon Country as “spectators of disunion.” In much of the next half-century, the Civil War continued to be viewed primarily as a military conflict distant from the Pacific Northwest, a conflict in which the region took little part.

Moving beyond the Civil War as largely a series of battlefield clashes came slowly. Superb writers such as Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, in their multivolume histories of the Civil War, kept readers fascinated with the lively military history of the four-year fratricidal conflict.

Lincoln’s important links with the Oregon Country were overlooked in these military and frontier emphases. Not until historians and biographers stressed more thoroughly important cross-continental political, sociocultural and economic factors were Americans able to see connections joining the East and West coasts. Once interpreters began to provide this larger, more complex portrait of the Civil War, the shaping influences of Lincoln in the Oregon Country came into sharper focus.

Lincoln’s clear, expanding role in the Oregon Country emerged, first of all, through politics. Before Lincoln entered the White House as the first Republican president in 1861, he had political contacts with Oregon. In 1848, as a congressman he voted against Oregon as a new territory where slavery would be allowed. But when slavery was disallowed, Lincoln supported Oregon’s organization as a new territory in 1848-49.

In August-September of 1849, Lincoln rejected Whig presidential appointments to be Oregon’s secretary or governor. He probably turned down the offices because Oregon was decidedly Democratic, and his wife Mary wanted no part of the far frontier.

The political linkages between Lincoln and the Pacific Northwest became more evident when several of his close friends in Illinois moved to Oregon between 1849 and 1860. These included David Logan, son of his second law partner; Dr. Anson G. Henry, Lincoln’s intimate political friend; Simeon Francis, his Whig editor; and Edward D. Baker, Lincoln’s longtime political competitor and ally.

So strong was the Baker-Lincoln friendship that Abraham and Mary Lincoln named their second son Edward (Eddie) after Baker. And Lincoln chose Baker to introduce him at his first inaugural in March 1861.
Political patronage
Once in the presidency, Lincoln profoundly influenced Oregon Country politics through his patronage. As chief executive, he could appoint territorial governors, secretaries and judges, which he did in Washington, Idaho and Montana. He was also able to name a few other officials, including Indian agents and marshals in the state of Oregon and in the new territories.

In these appointments, Lincoln contributed to political gridlock even before the word came into use. Thousands of Democrats, both Union and pro-South supporters, resided in the Oregon Country. In fact, they were in the majority in Oregon and the territories during some years of Lincoln’s presidency.

When he sent his Republican appointees into the Far Corner from 1861 to 1865, he created a Republican hierarchy, which often found itself at odds with thousands of Democrats. Lincoln had established a new, competing political party in the Pacific Northwest.

Historians have gradually uncovered these Lincoln ties to the Oregon Country. Even Johannsen, a Reed underclassman and University of Washington doctoral graduate, came around to seeing larger Lincoln’s links with the Pacific Northwest. But as the country’s leading specialist on Lincoln’s foe, Stephen A. Douglas, Johannsen could never be persuaded that Lincoln’s appointees in the Oregon Country were more than mediocre and troublesome.

David Johnson, a Portland State historian, views Lincoln’s connections more positively in his superb book “Founding the Far West” (1992). Political, economic and sociocultural happenings in the Civil War era of the Pacific Northwest are also emphasized in books by Bill Lang (another Portland State historian) on the Washington Territory, Ronald Limbaugh on the Idaho Territory and Clark Spence on the Montana Territory.

These historians deal with much more than military matters, without overlooking the impact of those important happenings, and show how Lincoln’s footprints are evident in other avenues of Oregon Country history.
No conscription
Lincoln tried to avoid divisiveness by not enforcing the draft in the Oregon Country. In addition, following the suggestions of Indian agents and his Indian commissioner, he signed treaties with Pacific Northwest tribes and sent the agreements to the Senate for ratification.

But the president did not want pro-Southern forces to disrupt Union war policies, so he allowed his military leaders to suppress newspapers, especially in Oregon, considered disloyal and disruptive to the war effort. Lincoln also permitted the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus if needed, although such actions were not carried out in the Oregon Country.

Lincoln supported economic measures that affected the Pacific Northwest. He urged Congress to pass and then signed in spring and summer of 1862 a homestead act, legislation for a transcontinental railroad and an enactment providing land and financial support for land-grant colleges such as Oregon State, Washington State and the University of Idaho.

It was in the political arena, however, where Lincoln had the most impact on the Pacific Northwest. In all, he may have appointed more than 50 persons to positions in the Oregon Country during his presidency. His fingerprints remained clear on the region’s political history in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, Lincoln was something of a political founding father of the Republicans in the Oregon Country — and in other parts of the American West as well.

As we move farther into the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011-15), and continue our extraordinary concentration on Lincoln, insightful and diligent historians will provide fuller pictures of Lincoln’s clear, shaping impact on the Oregon Country.
Richard W. Etulain is the author or editor of 50 books, most dealing with the American West. “Lincoln Looks West” appeared in 2010. His new study, “Abraham Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era,” is forthcoming. He may reached at

Reading: Etulain discusses “Abraham Lincoln and the American West During the Civil War Era” at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mission Theater, 1624 N.W. Glisan St.

— Richard W. Etulain

Abraham Lincoln Once Declined Governorship of Oregon

Opportunity to Direct Territorial Government Is Refused at Wish of Mrs. Lincoln

By Rowland R. Gittings, The Oregon Sunday Journal, February 11, 1912, Portland

It appears that few besides those persons who read history and biography with more than ordinary
attention know how nearly Oregon once approached the honor of numbering among her executives
“Governor” Abraham Lincoln. No one can more than conjecture the vast unlikenesses between
American history as it is and will be, and American history as it might have been if he who was to
become preserver, emancipator and martyr, had elected to console himself for his retirement from
congress, with the assumption of the duties of executive in the Territory of Oregon. An episode of
which biographers make little, but which “changed history by letting it alone,” may thus be recounted:
On March 4, 1849, Lincoln’s one term in congress expired. He had served the central district of
Illinois during the last two years of the administration of President Polk. It was then, in his district, a
peculiar tradition in his party, the Whig, that no member should seek re-election. Ambitious party
leaders were many, and it is notable that in very many cases ambition was all but equaled by actual
ability. Rotation prevailed. Lincoln was not defeated for re-election in 1848. He was merely not a
candidate. He might have been defeated; at all events, the Whig who was a candidate was defeated. It
was a Democratic year in Illinois, only one Whig,
Colonel E. D. Baker, then of the Galena district, being
successful in the race for Congress, even as Lincoln had
been the only Whig sent from Illinois in the election of
The outlook promised nothing for Lincoln or his
party in the lower house. As for the Senate, the prospect
was no better for the party, while as for Lincoln himself
senatorial ambitions would have seemed, in 1849,
premature even with his party in power. Yet he seemed
scarcely content to resume at once his law practice,
although he had in it achieved notable success. Besides,
the lure of Washington City was upon him. He was not
blinded, but he was charmed. Hence, in the last days of
his term he submitted himself to the incoming
administration, that of Taylor, as an applicant for the
commissionership of the general land office. For this position he had special fitness, to be sure, but
inasmuch as no distinction whatever could come to any incumbent, it is easy to agree with his
biographers, who exult in Lincoln’s escape from “the greatest danger that ever threatened him,” when
one Justin Butterfield of Chicago, being either less scrupulous or more ambitions, ran under the plum
and caught it falling.
Lincoln campaign button
from the 1860 election
Following his failure to obtain this commissionership, Lincoln was offered the governorship of
Oregon territory, to succeed General Joseph Lane, who was, of course, about to be removed for
reasons purely political. In one sense, the place was probably tendered as a sort of consolation prize;
on the other hand, Oregon’s material potentialities were well recognized by the well informed, while
those who saw far politically discerned possibilities not at all despicable, no matter how ill defined at
that day. Friends of Lincoln advised him to accept the Oregon tender, reasoning that the territory must,
in a few years, achieve statehood, and that a seat in the senate of the United States might most
reasonably be expected at the hands of the Oregonians. This consideration appealed to Lincoln himself,
and doubtless he would have placed himself at the disposal of the administration. But Mrs. Lincoln
was loath to undergo the long journey to Oregon and the discomforts of life on the farthest frontier.
And so the name Abraham Lincoln was never sent to the senate; Oregon lost a distinguished honor and
intimate experience with a premier influence; and there went on without pause that steady marshalling
of hosts that were to settle, under Lincoln, in four years, an issue that but for him might not have been
settled in forty, nor settled as it is now settled, in half a thousand.
But suppose Lincoln had accepted the governorship of Oregon territory, and at the same time
suppose the nation’s history had proceeded substantially as it has
actually proceeded. What, at this day, would have be Oregon’s
peculiar share in and heritage of Lincoln? That he would still have
ranked large as a factor in national affairs, and would in some great
way have come to be considered as of the nation rather than as of
any state, there can be little question. It is difficult to imagine any
combination of circumstances that would have made him president
at the hour of national crisis, or otherwise, but it is easy to imagine
him laboring fruitfully as the foundations of Oregon were laid, and
later in a national sphere in the undertaking to remove old evils
other than slavery and to bring forth new benefits other than
emancipation. Lincoln did one, and but one, great work. It was
enough. But he saw evil, and saw it single – a polyhedron of
innumerable facets. The facet turned toward him was slavery. He
never had his chance at other evils of his time, nor at forefending
against evils then only impending, save as he might warn of them.
And warn he did, even in the midst of war’s stress; but, he had only
incidental opportunity to essay the constructive in the general economic field. Yet no other American
ever saw so clearly all the ills of his country, present and to come. Not secession alone threatened the
republic; the growth of privilege and the consequent recession of liberty were ever before him. In fact,
slavery itself was not set apart by Lincoln as a unique iniquity; it was only for the time, the greatest; it
was in reality only one form of that evil of evils, privilege, in virtue of which one man presumes to
exercise the political powers appertaining unto another and to seize the fruits of another’s toll.
By how many years might Oregon’s preeminence as a progressive commonwealth have been put
forward had Abraham Lincoln come hither in 1849!

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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