Democratic Party Machine Politics in the 1850s

Asahel Bush standing
Newspaperman Asahel Bush controlled the Democratic Party machine that dominated Oregon politics in the 1850s. (Image courtesy Bush House Museum, Salem Art Association Photo no. bh0614)
The 1850s brought new political players and rules to a period in which national issues were increasingly important to the debate. Old rivalries from the 1840s were dissolving into the past since the Hudson's Bay Company moved its headquarters from the Columbia River to Vancouver Island; the Methodist missionaries had disbanded; and federal legislation reduced anxieties about land claims. But the role of the federal government brought a new set of conflicts. These were heightened by the introduction of invective-laced partisan politics pitting the dominant Democratic machine versus a constantly evolving mix of Whigs, Know-Nothings, and insurgent Democrats. Meanwhile, dramatic national developments related to slavery led to urgent calls for statehood.

Democrats and Anti-Democrats

Not surprisingly, a large proportion of Oregonians in the 1850s were Democrats since most new settlers were arriving from the Midwest states where Jacksonian Democrats held considerable power. Philosophically, they maintained an agrarian ideal based on personal liberty and initiative. Conversely, they distrusted banks, corporations, urbanization and any reformers who wanted to exploit their labor or impose limits on their freedoms. The party featured highly organized and disciplined politics grounded in the local communities where precinct caucuses led to county, territorial and national conventions. These politics were intricately interwoven with a strong social component that further reinforced party loyalty into a way of life. Numerous party events scheduled around the all-important farming season brought like-minded men together, as historian David Alan Johnson notes: "The antebellum politics, marked by Jackson jubilees, Jefferson-Jackson dinners, Fourth of July bonfires, precinct caucuses, county conventions, elections and legislative sessions, made up the public life of individuals otherwise isolated from one another." Footnote 1

A Know Nothing advertisement
An 1854 soap advertisement capitalizes on the brief popularity of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. (Image no. cph 3g05004 courtesy Library of Congress) Enlarge image.
In contrast, their opponents, while vocal, were small in number and lacking effective organization. The Whig Party, teetering toward oblivion on the national stage, never mounted a serious challenge in Oregon. Unlike the Democrats who typically looked no further than farming for a livelihood, Whigs often sought out business opportunities such as those presented in the small but growing commercial community of Portland. They also saw an important role for government in curbing what they deemed to be societal problems such as liquor and tobacco use. Meanwhile, an anti-immigrant movement rose to prominence nationally and in Oregon in the mid-1850s. Feeling threatened by the influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants, the Know-Nothing or American Party called for strict limits on immigration to stem what was seen as the excessive allegiance to the Pope in Rome instead of the government of the United States. The party briefly benefited by drawing large numbers of members from the collapsing Whig Party, but soon fell apart itself over the issue of slavery. Other groups, such as the new anti-slavery Republican Party formed in 1854, lacked strong organization to compete with the Democrats in Oregon.

A Capital Case

Controlling about 75% of the vote, Democrats in Oregon enjoyed wide latitude in the politics of the territory. Still, they were not without their challenges. For example, soon after he was appointed in 1850, new Whig Governor John Gaines began a long quarrel with Democrats over the location of the territorial capital. The Democrats voted to move the capital from Oregon City, which was considered a Whig town, to Salem, a Democratic community. Gaines saw the move as a political power play by a defiant Democratic legislature and declared the action invalid on the grounds it violated the single subject provision of the organic act that created the territory (the omnibus bill that moved the capital also set the penitentiary in Portland and the state college in Marysville—later Corvallis). Democrats responded by mustering 26 of the 31 members of the legislature to assemble in Salem. There, in a memorial to Congress, they accused Gaines of "mental perverseness" and claimed that he "sought by indirect and extra official acts to usurp the powers placed in the hands of the representatives of the people alone." The Democratic Oregon Statesman newspaper predictably joined in to call Gaines a foreign interloper while praising the Democrats as defenders of local sovereignty. Footnote 2

A portrait of John Gaines
Whig Governor John Gaines battled the Democrats. (Oregon State Archives image)
The controversy went on to involve more officials, both in Oregon and Washington D.C. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of the governor on a party line two to one vote. Gaines appealed to the Whig president for help and his opponents called on the Democratic Congress for assistance. Meanwhile, Oregon's Whig treasurer refused to authorize payment for the salaries and expenses of the legislators meeting in Salem, a decision supported by the U.S. Attorney General. The treasurer's actions were later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court by its refusal to hear the case. But eventually Democratic delegate Joseph Lane managed to get Congress to declare Salem the capital. The president ended up horse trading his signature on the bill in order to secure the passage of other more valuable legislation in 1852. Later wrangling would move the capital to Corvallis briefly before its permanent return to Salem. Footnote 3

The Political Machine

The bitter dispute over the location of the capital helped consolidate the power of what became known as the "Salem Clique." This small group of influential Democrats took control of the levers of power in the territory to build a very effective political machine that dominated politics during much of the 1850s. At the core of the power was the ability of its members to funnel federal political appointments and money to themselves and their allies. Asahel Bush, editor of the Oregon Statesman, led the clique, which also included Matthew Deady, Delazon Smith, James W. Nesmith, R.P. Boise and La Fayette Grover. These members enforced the will of the clique on lower levels of the party apparatus, doling out favors for good deeds and loyalty while meting out punishments for those who strayed from their directives.

A portrait of La Fayette Grover
La Fayette Grover was a key member of the Salem Clique that struggled to maintain control of Democrats in the late 1850s. He later went on to serve as governor in the 1870s.
Complicating its grasp on local power, however, was the uneasy mutual alliance between the clique and Joseph Lane. The popular and charismatic former governor was elected to be Oregon's delegate to Congress in 1851. There he maintained a base of political power that was at least partially independent from the local power of the clique. The clique needed Lane's help to maximize the money flowing to Oregon from federal coffers and to grease the wheels for patronage appointments of its allies. Meanwhile, Lane harbored much greater political aspirations—with his Mexican War record and his charm, he had been mentioned in some circles as a possible presidential candidate. To have any hope of progressing to that level, Lane would have to count on strong local support from the clique. By the mid-1850s the complicated arrangement was showing signs of breaking down. Lane was trying to build his own independent patronage network. Predictably, the clique saw this as a challenge to their dominant patronage machine and complained bitterly.

A second threat came in the form of an insurgency by Democrats based in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. By the middle of the decade, party members were growing weary of the iron hand of the clique, which derived most of its power from Democrats in the general region around Salem. The rival group, calling itself National Democrats, openly challenged what Bush called the "regular organization" of the party in 1855. By the next year, the "softs," as Bush derisively described them, set up a separate party organization in several counties. Further incursions by the political insurgents drew withering condemnation in the Oregon Statesman, where Bush denounced the group as a "wolf in sheep's clothing...engaged in efforts to misrepresent, malign, and create discord among Democrats." Meanwhile, the clique was beginning to face a third, and more corrosive, threat as the national slavery crisis swept over Oregon in the mid-1850s. Footnote 4

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  1. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 86; David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 58.
  2. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 53-54.
  3. "How Salem Became the Capital of Oregon Territory," End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center Web Site, viewed June 17, 2007. <>.
  4. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 63.
  5. Ibid., 60.
  6. Malcolm Clark, Jr., Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon, 1818-1862 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) 245-246.