Statehood Survives the Congressional Morass

A portrait of John Whiteaker standing
John Whiteaker was elected to be Oregon's first state governor in a June 1858 election. Unfortunately, statehood wasn't ratified by Congress until the next year.
Members of the Salem Clique must have been heartened by the Oregon ratification of the constitution as well as the companion votes on slavery and free blacks. The convention stayed true to Democratic form and now the election had followed in its footsteps. All that was left was approval by Congress and then the dominant Democrats could lay claim to various new state offices. But actual events soon spun out of control and political turmoil followed both in Salem and in Washington D.C. After a seemingly interminable delay pockmarked with political intrigue and betrayal, Oregon finally became a state on Feb. 14, 1859.

Oregon Governmental Confusion

Government leaders in Oregon groped their way through a fog of political confusion in 1858. Provisions in the newly ratified constitution scheduled a special election in June 1858 to elect a new state legislature, a congressman, and state and county officials. The new legislature was then to elect two senators to send to Congress. But these plans were based on the assumption that Congress would already have ratified Oregon's constitution, thus leaving leaders with doubt on how to proceed. Still, the June election went forward and yielded a mixed victory for the "hard" Salem Clique-led Democrats, with some legislative seats going to the "soft" or National Democrats. The resulting four-day legislative special session saw the election of Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith as the state's first senators. Smith, along with recently elected representative La Fayette Grover, soon left for Washington to join Lane in pushing for ratification in Congress. Some opposition members of the state legislature tried to hold a regular session as scheduled in September 1858. However, lacking support from the Salem Clique, the session attracted only ten representatives and two senators. The abortive effort adjourned on its second day. Footnote 1

A portrait of George Curry
Sitting Territorial Governor George Curry continued at the helm during the confusion in Congress as state Governor John Whiteaker yielded.
As the territorial legislature assembled for its regularly scheduled session in December 1858, politicians faced further confusion because Oregon now had two governors. The June election had named John Whiteaker as the first state governor. But George Curry continued to serve as sitting territorial governor. Congress could not decide the issue yet so Governor Whiteaker and the other state officers finally yielded to Governor Curry. The territorial legislature would meet according to the old provisions of territorial law. Curry voiced concerns about the netherworld in which Oregon government found itself: "Notwithstanding the accumulation of doubt which has settled on the question, we indulge hope that at the present session of congress Oregon will be admitted as a state in the Union." Footnote 2

Congressional Debate on Oregon

A painting of Jefferson Davis on a horse
Senator Jefferson Davis (shown here later as president of the Confederacy) opposed the admission of any new northern states during debate in 1858. (Image courtesy R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana) Enlarge image.
The issue was deeply entangled in Washington politics. The U.S. Senate began to consider Oregon statehood in May 1858 amid a worsening split of the Democratic Party over slavery and ongoing controversy over admitting Kansas to the union. Oregon's bid only complicated the debate. Some southerners, such as Senator Jefferson Davis, opposed the admission of any more northern states, fearing an erosion of the sectional political balance. Others looked at specific issues such as the real question of whether Oregon had a large enough population to qualify for statehood. Debate, not surprisingly, frequently returned to slavery, yielding its predictably polarizing effect. Many southerners opposed admitting Oregon because it had voted three to one against slavery. Conversely, many Republicans objected to the way Oregon treated blacks and other minorities as witnessed by the overwhelming vote to prohibit free blacks as well as other discrimination against "Chinamen." The senate finally passed the bill by a vote of 35 to 17 but Congress adjourned before the house could reach a vote, holding the question over until the December session. Footnote 3

During the long congressional adjournment from June to December 1858, Oregon's senators and representative in waiting, Joseph Lane, Delazon Smith and La Fayette Grover, lobbied members of both houses looking for support. They, of course, were in an expensive holding pattern since they couldn't claim their seats in Congress or their salaries until Oregon was admitted. Meanwhile, Asahel Bush had grown discouraged about Oregon's chances on admission, seeing the issue hopelessly bogged down by the Kansas debate. Expressing his doubt, Bush wrote in the Nov. 16 Oregon Statesman that Oregon's population was estimated to be only 42,862, barely half the number required for a representative. This contradicted Lane's earlier optimistic estimates of as many as 80,000 and led to testy comments by frustrated fellow Salem Clique member Smith, who viewed Bush's public doubts as decidedly unhelpful:

A chaotic image of Congress
A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats finally broke the logjam in the U.S. House of Representatives and passed the Oregon statehood bill by a slender 114 to 103 vote. Congress was becoming increasingly chaotic over the issue of slavery. (Image courtesy Library of Congress)
The final vote on the Oregon admission bill in the U.S. House of Representatives was delayed until February 1859, after languishing in the committee on territories for over six months. Once the bill was reported to the floor, the committee chairman noted questions about the population requirement, prompting delegate Joseph Lane to once again give his optimistic opinion that the population "is very nearly equal to the ratio upon which representation is based." Many house Republicans, meanwhile, called attention to what they saw as the injustice of the Oregon constitution and decried the barbarity of the anti-free black clause, saying that it discriminated against a whole class of people born on American soil. Footnote 5

The deadlock finally ended when 15 Republicans broke ranks and ignored Republican Party opposition to the bill. Despite extraordinary efforts to enforce party discipline, the breakaway members insisted on viewing the question of Oregon statehood on its merits. In their view, the people of Oregon had acted in good faith as they proceeded with a convention and ratification vote and therefore were entitled to statehood. Combining with moderate Democrats, the group overcame the opposition consisting of Republican party hard-liners and Democratic southern extremists. The final vote on Feb. 12 showed a narrow 114 to 103 victory for statehood. Two days later the president signed the bill and Oregon officially became the 33rd state in the union. Footnote 6

The Collapse of the Oregon Democrats

A painting of President Buchanan
President Buchanan (above) held Joseph Lane in high esteem, impressing Delazon Smith enough to make him turn against the Salem Clique.
Delazon Smith's harsh words against his longtime ally Asahel Bush betrayed a growing rift in the Democratic Party. During the long months of waiting in Washington D.C. for congressional action, Smith had grown increasingly impressed by Joseph Lane's standing with the Buchanan Administration as well as by talk of a possible Lane presidency. Over time, he switched allegiance and supported Lane in a bid to wrest control of the Oregon Democratic Party from the Salem Clique, a group in which Smith had long played a key role. Both men had strong motives. Long at odds with Bush, Lane wanted control of the state party in support of a bid for the White House. Meanwhile, Smith was desperate to win reelection after having the bad luck of drawing a short term in a process designed to stagger elections for senators. His term of less than three weeks was ending just as his feud with powerful clique leader Bush was heating up. Footnote 7

The two new senators successfully engineered a strategy that would move forward on two tracks. First, Lane used his connections with President Buchanan to replace the old Oregon patronage appointments that had been influenced by Bush with those of his own choosing. Meanwhile, Smith rushed back to Oregon and secretly engineered a slate of party delegates that combined his friends with those loyal to Lane. The trap was set at the April 1859 Democratic Party convention and the takeover strategy worked as planned. Caught off guard and outnumbered, Bush loyalists could do nothing more than walk out. This allowed Smith's delegates to renominate Smith for his senate seat and take control of the party central committee. Not surprisingly, what amounted to a party coup would be seen as nothing less than a blatant betrayal by Bush loyalists. Footnote 8

A portrait of John C. Breckenridge
John C. Breckenridge ran for president in 1860 on a southern Democratic ticket with Oregon's Joseph Lane as a running mate.
Enraged, Bush responded aggressively, attacking his former allies as heretics. And, as a consolation for losing control of the party, he did managed to block Smith's reelection as senator. By arranging for his loyal Democrats to walk out during debate on the election of a senator, he left the legislature without a quorum and denied a bitter Delazon Smith of his coveted senate seat—a seat that would remain vacant for more than a year and a half. The two sides settled into a long and ugly struggle of words, intensified by the growing fractures in the Democratic Party nationally. By the spring of 1861, the state party had collapsed, a victim of the swirling currents of political realignment in Oregon. During the Civil War, Republicans gained from the divisions and grew into a patronage party not unlike the Democrats in the 1850s. Footnote 9

Three of the most important leaders in the Democratic Party of the 1850s all suffered political defeat. The year after losing his senate reelection bid, Delazon Smith "died more of a broken heart than physical illness" at the age of 44. Joseph Lane ran for vice president on the pro-slavery Breckenridge ticket in the four-way presidential race of 1860 that elected Abraham Lincoln with a mere 39 percent of the vote and split the nation further. Thereafter politically hampered by his support of slavery, Lane withdrew to the Roseburg area where he was occasionally involved in politics over the years before he died in 1881. Likewise, Asahel Bush sold the Oregon Statesman in 1861 and largely retired from politics in the wake of his bruising experiences leading up to the Civil War. He instead concentrated on founding and building the Ladd and Bush Bank into an impressive financial force in the Willamette Valley. He remained a prominent citizen until his death in 1913.

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  1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 40-43.
  2. Ibid., 44.
  3. Ibid., 45-46; David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 277.
  4. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 46-47.
  5. Ibid., 50.
  6. Ibid., 50-51; Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 148-149.
  7. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 280-281.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.