Slavery? Here?

As the Civil War reaches its 150th anniversary, it's time to reflect on the impact of that era on the Pacific Northwest, and how political battles over slavery, secession, and states' rights were fought not just back East, but in the Rain Belt too.

Crosscut archive image.

Isaac Stevens, seated, with his Army staff

As the Civil War reaches its 150th anniversary, it's time to reflect on the impact of that era on the Pacific Northwest, and how political battles over slavery, secession, and states' rights were fought not just back East, but in the Rain Belt too.

Deep political division, violence, a nasty, partisan media. This year we remember the so-called "Secession Winter" of 1861 as the United States fragmented and fell apart in what was the most tumultuous time in our nation's history.

While nothing since has matched it for intensity and the resultant bloodshed, it resonates today where issues like states' and civil rights are fought over in legislatures and the courts, where race is still a great unhealed wound, where Blue and Red states (as opposed to Blue and Gray) squeeze citizens in the ideological middle, where the Constitution and guns are frequently waved.

This year is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. While most of the politics and fighting happened from the Mississippi River on east, Pacific Northwesterners would do well to use the occasion to review what happened here in the 1850s and '60s, a critical period in the settlement of the region and the formation of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Indeed, Oregon's statehood was hotly debated: Should it be a slave state, or free? The region's newspapers were as nasty as the blogosphere, so virulently vituperative and partisan that such journalism became known nationally as "Oregon style." When a person got to the end of the Oregon trail, they could still be in the thick of things.

War politics helped carve Idaho out of the Washington Territory, which in 1861 consisted of the current states of Washington, Idaho, and large chunks of Montana and Wyoming. It played a role in the birth of Oregon in 1859. As a whole, Oregon Country was remote but still involved in conflicts over slavery, popular sovereignty, territorial rights, and federal control. Many major players in the political conflict and Civil War itself had starring, or at least cameo roles here, especially military men doing frontier service.

Ulysses S. Grant was stationed for a while at Fort Vancouver, where it is said his drinking problems began, in part due to the damp and loneliness. George Pickett, later the Confederate officer famous for Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, a moment called the "high-water mark of the Confederacy," helped hold the San Juan Islands for America against Great Britain during the Pig War. Phil Sheridan, Winfield Scott, and George B. McClellan were also here fighting Indians, surveying road and rail routes, or negotiating agreements.

On the political side, the campaign of 1860 featured the Northwest's first-ever candidate on a national ticket. The southern-born Joseph Lane, first territorial governor then senator from Oregon, was the vice presidential candidate along with presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge, one of the two competing Democratic tickets that year (the other Democratic ticket was headed by Lincoln's rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois).

The Democratic party had split, mostly north and south, on the subject of the expansion of slavery into the territories. Breckinridge/Lane was the preferred ticket of the South: They won 11 southern states and came in second in the electoral college.

Running that pro-Southern, slavery-friendly campaign was Isaac I. Stevens, Washington's territorial delegate in Congress and the man, more than any other, who is the state's founding father. He served as territorial governor, scouted railway routes, negotiated — sometimes with brutal force — the region's Indian treaties. In 1860, many of the Northwest's leading political actors, our stars on the national stage, were sympathetic with Dixie, not abolitionists or "Black Republicans" like Abraham Lincoln.

Thanks to a divided vote that split Democrats between Breckinridge and Douglas, the young Pacific Coast states of California and Oregon went for Lincoln. Yet the Republican vote did not mean racial enlightenment. Historian Robert Johannsen described the debates over race and slavery in his book Frontier Politics and Sectional Conflict: the Pacific Northwest on the Eve of the Civil War. Oregon's citizens voted to reject slavery by a wide margin, but by an even wider margin they voted to ban all blacks and mulattos, free or slave, from the new state, which joined the union in 1859. Many urged that the Pacific Northwest become an all-white enclave.

There were Oregonians who owned slaves, having brought them on the move west, and kept them even after slavery was outlawed. Some slaves escaped to the British Colony of Vancouver Island, which at one time welcomed black settlers; some were freed by the courts, others remained enslaved as owners argued over "property" rights.

Newspapers and politicians debated whether slavery and blacks here were a good idea. Some were free-soilers and opposed slavery on moral grounds. Some said the development of the Northwest could never happen without slave labor; others said slavery would bring only conflict and moral degeneracy — and besides, blacks would never stand the rainy climate. One settler from Missouri counter-argued that in his experience, blacks would do well in the region because they were "amphibious." Some said that Indians would make better slaves anyway.

Many people just wanted to secede from the whole issue: They had come here to escape the problems of the East and South. In 1861, Oregon's pro-slavery Democratic governor, the appropriately named John Whiteaker, argued that his state should remain "neutral" during the Civil War and refuse any calls for troops. He did not, however, back secession from the Union. Not every Oregonian was a Confederate sympathizer. One of the state's first two senators was Edward Baker, a Republican and friend of Lincoln's, who raised a California volunteer brigade to fight for the Union and was killed in the Battle of Ball's Bluff in 1861.

The frontier politics were complex, more than the simple Blue-Gray divides we learned about in school. In the Northwest, there were free-soil Democrats, and Republicans who thought slavery was just fine (the mainstream Republicans, like Lincoln, were against the expansion of slavery, but didn't advocate ending it where it existed). Republican Baker had broken with Lincoln and backed the Douglas Democrats' concept of allowing territories to decide the slavery question themselves.

Many settlers, pro-slave or not, supported Republican policies that were generous to homesteaders and railroad expansion. They established the kind of frontier-state pragmatism that is embodied in the politics of electeds like former Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who balanced a dislike of government with the demand for federal resources and largesse.

The Democratic party had pro- and anti-secession factions. After losing the election, Kentuckian Breckinridge became a Confederate general. His running mate, Lane, was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate for his pro-secession views. Sen. Andrew Johnson railed against traitors, argued for hanging them, and said "the Senator from Oregon is more Southern than the South itself." With the fall of Fort Sumter and the start of the fighting, Lane returned to Oregon a virtual exile, his political career over. His son, John, joined the Confederates.

The manager of the Breckinridge and Lane campaign, Washington's Stevens, did not go south. His support of the ticket, and his neglect of his duties representing the pork-barrel and patronage politics of Washington Territory in Congress while galavanting on the national stage, damaged his viability for re-election. Though he had many friends who joined the Confederate Army — for a time he was roommate of Robert E. Lee during the Mexican War — the feisty Stevens joined the Union Army and died leading a heroic if reckless charge of the 79th New York Highlanders at the Battle of Chantilly in 1862.

The pro-South tilt of the Northwest before the war was partly due to immigration from Southern and border states. But also because many who came along the Oregon Trail flowed from the tradition of Jacksonian and Jeffersonian democracy. Because of the strong influence of the Democratic party during the years of the region's formation, political appointments and patronage were dominated by Democrats. Thus relics on the modern map like Pierce and King counties in Washington, named to celebrate (and kiss up to) the successful 1852 Democratic ticket of Franklin Pierce and his running mate, William Rufus DeVane King, an Alabama slaveholder. King County has since been re-designated to honor Martin Luther King.

Echoes of that earlier era also bubbled up in 2002, when Washington state Rep. Hans Dunshee questioned whether state Highway 99, which runs through the heart of Seattle, should be designated the "Jefferson Davis Highway," as claimed by two markers put up in the 1920s by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The resulting brouhaha fired up right-wing audiences, who attacked Dunshee for political correctness. He was accused in Glenn Beckian-style of being a racist and a Nazi for suggesting the markers be removed.

Dunshee was completely surprised by the venom in the controversy, thinking that removing a commemoration in Washington for the president of the Confederacy would be no big deal. It turned out the designation of the highway had never been official, so the markers were eventually and quietly removed. One is now in a private park in Vancouver. Dunshee supported putting the markers in a museum and explaining the historical context.

For many people who grew up here, far from Civil War monuments and battlefields, the conflict seems remote. But we are still wrestling with many of the same issues, and using similar rhetoric whether arguing for gay marriage and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, or filing lawsuits claiming that the federal government has no right to make states participate in healthcare reform.

Racial conflict is never far from the news or surface. In Seattle, controversies over police shootings and beatings often have a race component, and a state Supreme Court Justice, Richard Sanders, recently lost his re-election in part by questioning claims of racial bias in the legal system. Fear about extremism, anger, and polarization of political debate also echoes. "Oregon style" journalism is resurgent on the Internet and television. 

Reading about the runup to the Civil War is a timely and humbling lesson. Immersion in the complex political arguments of that era is sobering because the extremes of opinion did so much damage, but so too did the middle ground. Centrists often offered solutions that were neither right nor sustainable. Compromise isn't synonymous with problem-solving, and poor compromises often let them fester. 

Centrists, like Lincoln and Douglas, were willing to live with slavery to protect the Union. Some abolitionists craved a race war and yearned for secession as avidly as the worst Southern "fire eaters." Lincoln's election was partly engineered by secessionists who knew it would lead to the breakup of the Union. His "middle ground" views were regarded by many Southerners as extremism in disguise. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act was supposed to allow people in the territories to determine whether to have slavery or not, a compromise on the question of slavery's extension, yet border terrorists hijacked the process and turned it into all-out war.

Calls for civility are good and noble, but solutions aren't always easy to come by in conversation alone, nor is centrism a solution itself. Sometimes it takes action, and a strong moral compass, to get things right. The trick is to do it without shedding so much blood.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.