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Pacific Coast Republic

The West has always been the home of democracy. The Western movement in the United States from its first inception was a democratic movement. The fur traders who blazed the trail to the West, and the ranchers and farmers who followed in their wake forging the broader path for civilization were not aristocrats, but the common people—rugged, selfreliant, and ambitious. They pushed to the West, drawn by the lure of adventure, seeking cheap lands, and a chance to work out their political and social ideas free from the aristocratic organization of the East. Hence in the West democracy, social and political, became the dominant force.

The life of the pioneer was rough; social amenities were few, but a man's valuation was based on his personal worth and ability, and not on his wealth or ancestry. The problems confronting the pioneer were new and difficult, and through the effort required for their solution the minds of even the older men experienced rejuvenation. With all his faults the pioneer must be admired for his idealism and his optimism.

The early isolation of the West, and the completeness of its geographical separation from the political center of the nation fostered an intense feeling of local independence. It was not surprising then that in times of great public danger when vital sectional interests were believed to be at stake this spirit of local independence should find expression in the doctrines of popular sovereignty, states-rights, nullification, and even secession.

1803 - Republic of the Pacific

Jefferson foresaw the establishment of an independent nation in the Western portion of the North American continent that he dubbed the “Republic of the Pacific”. In his mind, this nation was to be home to a “great, free and independent empire”, populated by American settlers, but separate from the United States politically and economically, and eventually becoming a great trading partner exploring its own democratic experiment. And it is a sharp commentary on the weakness of his original propositions of government, that almost the very first of his acts as president of the United States, was admitted by himself to be an infraction of the letter of the Constitution he had sworn to support, and of his own ideas of the proper mission of the Republic. In a letter to John Breckenridge, August 12, 1803, speaking of the purchase of Louisiana, Jefferson says:

"The treaty, of course, must be laid before both houses. They, I presume, will see their duty to their country in ratifying and paying for it (Louisiana), so as to secure a good which would otherwise probably be never again in their power. The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The Executive, in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, has done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind metaphysical subleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must ratify and pay for it, and throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized, what we know they would have done for themselves, had they been in a situation to do it."

And to show further the hazy ideas of this remarkable statesman, when it comes to forming a concrete and persistent nation, take another extract from the same letter: "The future inhabitants of the Atlantic and Mississippi states, will be our sons. We leave them in distinct, but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their Union, and we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise, and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take sides with our Atlantic rather than our Mississippi descendants. God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them if it be better."

And when Jefferson came to consider the Pacific coast sons of the Republic, he wanders still farther way from a union which must for all time make us a homogeneous nation. In a letter to John Jacob Astor, May 2, 1812: "I considered as a great public acquisition the commencement of a settlement on that point (Astoria) of the western coast of America, and looked forward with gratification to the time when its descendants should have spread themselves through the whole length of that coast, covering it with free and independent Americans, unconnected with us by the ties of blood and interest, and employing, like us, the rights of self-government."

In an 09 November 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jacob Astor he congratulated Astor on the establishment of Fort Astoria (the coastal fur trade post of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company) "I learn with great pleasure the progress you have made towards an establishment of the Columbia river. I view it as the germ of 'a great free and independent empire on that site of our continent, and that'liberty and self-government spreading from that as well as this side, will insure their complete establishment over the whole. It must be still more gratifying to yourself to foresee that your name will be handed down with that of Columbus, and Raleigh, as the father of the establishment and founder of such an empire. It would be an afflicting thing indeed should the English be able to break up the settlement. The bigotry to the bastard liberty of their own country, and habitual hostility to every degree of freedom in any other will induce the attempt. They would not lose the sale of a bale of furs for the freedom of the whole world."

When Lewis and Clark first arrived, they found a densely populated and diverse region. Before 1800, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people lived within the region in dozens of tribes such as the Chinook, Haida, Nootka and Tlingit.

1843 - Oregon Republic

Prior to the great immigration of 1843 the political organization lacked much of being an effective instrument. While there was little reason to make laws and less reason to attempt to enforce them, the obligation to obey sat lightly upon the little community. The state rested as yet upon good natured acquiescence in a more or less useless contrivance which nobody took too seriously.

Political debate continued into 1843 and eventually resulted in the formation of a provisional government. At the public meeting on July 5, 1843, the vast region known as Oregon was divided into legislative districts. The first of these comprised all the country “south of the northern boundary line of the United States, west of the Wallamet or Multnomah river, north of the Yamhill river and east of the Pacific ocean.” The colonists, by fixing the Willamette River as the eastern boundary of the district, making no express provision for extension of the line northward from the mouth of the river, avoided precipitating the issue.

There was not then an American citizen residing north of the Columbia River, and there were few outside of the Willamette Valley.“ The Champoeg district was bounded by a “supposed line drawn from the mouth of the Haunchauke (Pudding) River, running due east to the Rocky mountains,” on the west by the Willamette River, on the south by the boundary line between Oregon and California, and on the cast by the summit of the Rocky Mountains. This district alone, then populated by some two hundred Americans, comprised a veritable empire, and included large parts of what are now the states of Oregon and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

Some settlers argued for the creation of an independent country while most favored waiting for the United States to step in and take ownership. Meanwhile, the increasing population added to the pressure to find a political solution as more Americans and retired fur traders flowed into the Willamette Valley. The influx of settlers increased the chance of land claim disputes for which there was no clear settlement mechanism. The ostensible reason for compromise came with the growing number of attacks on livestock by wolves, bears and cougars. Two "Wolf Meetings" were called in early 1843 in which a bounty system was devised for killing the predators. Residents were to contribute to a general fund from which the bounties would be paid. An executive committee was chosen to collect and distribute the money—effectively establishing Oregon's first tax.

During the last organizational meeting, held at Champoeg on May 2, 1843, settlers voted on whether to create a provisional government after Joe Meek yelled out, "Who's for a divide? All for the report of the committee and organization follow me." The close vote of about 52 to 50 favored formation of a government. Nearly all of the French-Canadians voted against it. Footnote 2 A legislative committee met in May and June to draft a constitution. The resulting product, called the Organic Act, was adopted July 5, 1843, officially marking the birth of the provisional government.

George Abernethy was elected its first and only Provisional Governor, but the opposing faction led by Osborne Russell favored Independence. Russell proposed that the Oregon Territory not join the United States, but instead become a Pacific Republic that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide. In her 1870 biography of Joe Meek, River of the West, Frances Fuller Victor writes “there were those in the legislative committee for 1844, and in the executive committee also, who were revolving in their minds the question of an independent government; that is a government owning no allegiance either to the US or Great Britain, but which should lay the foundations of an empire on the Pacific Coast”.

Oregon politics were in a state of flux during the 1840s. The region went from having no government, other than the de facto civil authority exercised by the Hudson's Bay Company, to territorial status on a path to statehood. Along the way, Oregonians saw the creation of a provisional government in 1843 and the end of the British claim to sovereignty in 1846.

The immigration of 1845 was the largest that had crossed the plains. Bringing almost three thousand new settlers to the territory, it doubled its population, and added to its perplexities, because while the newcomers were in the larger part home builders in intent, they arrived late in the year and few brought with them the means of subsistence while they were establishing themselves. Local political squabbles between Americans and an alliance of French-Canadians and the Hudson's Bay Company provided much of the early heat but politics in Washington, driven by the call "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!," added to the rising temperature on the subject of what to do with the Oregon Country.

In the 1840s the status of the Oregon Territory became an important issue. Missouri Democrat Senator Thomas Hart Benton did not voice any strong opinions on the matter until May 1846 when he spent three days addressing “The Oregon Question.” He continued to believe in westward expansion, more commonly called Manifest Destiny, and set out to show “the true extent and nature of our territorial claims beyond the Rocky Mountains.” At the end of his final speech, Benton moved to reintroduce a bill to declare the Oregon Territory under US rule. He had first presented the bill in a secret session of Congress in 1828. The area, also claimed by Great Britain, eventually became a US territory in 1848.

South Carolina Senator George McDuffie asked "What are we to do with it? If this were a question of gradual, continuous, progressive settlement; if Oregon were really to become a part of the Union, it would present a very different question. But does any man seriously suppose that a State can ever be formed at the mouth of the Columbia River? Does any man believe that any of the inhabitable parts of that Territory will ever become one of the States of the Union? I have great faith in the power of representative government. But never, even in the sanguine days of youth, have I dreamed of the possibility of embracing within the same Government people living five thousand miles apart...

"Have you estimated the cost of a railroad from here to the mouth of the Columbia? The wealth of the Indies would not be sufficient to pay for it. And who will be the settlers in Oregon? Who will go along your line of military posts and take possession of the only part fit to occupy, the strip along the sea-coast, less than one hundred miles wide? The rest of the territory consists of mountains almost impassable, and of lowlands covered with stone and volcanic remains, on which no rain falls save in spring. On the coast rain is not seen from April to October, and during the rest of the year there is nothing but rain. What use is Oregon for agriculture? Why, I would not give a pinch of snuff for the whole country. I wish to God we did not own it. "

Senator Archer also thought the country of little value. "It was separated, not only from our present, but from any future settlement we could ever have by a vast tract of Indian country, chiefly desert. Then came the utterly barren and almost impassable Rocky Mountains, and beyond them the Territory proper. Long ranges of mountains, barren and cut by unnavigable streams, led to the third part, a valley on the seaboard of the Pacific, a valley fit for an Asiatic, but not an American dependency, if, indeed, it were of any value at all as a dependency. Such as was suitable for agriculture was without harbors, and never, at any time, could have a large production or any considerable trade".

John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, asked "Has the time come, when it would be wise to assert and maintain our claim to exclusive right to Oregon against the adverse claim of Great Britain? No. It has not; because, if made, it must end in failure. She has strong naval and military forces in India and China. Five thousand five hundred miles of tranquil ocean separate them from Oregon. With little expense of time and money, she could concentrate them at the mouth of the Columbia, there to join with a strong body of hardy and energetic servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the Indians under its control. How could we meet this? We have no naval, no military force on the Pacific. Our fleet would have to sail around Cape Horn, and our troops cross three thousand miles of naked plains and mountains. But will Great Britain resist? We cannot doubt she has the power, and with provocation will use it. How, then, can we save Oregon? There is but one means — time. All we need to gain our end is a masterly inactivity....

"To the people the Oregon question now put on a very serious aspect. Failure to define the boundary by treaty, failure of Congress to protect and encourage emigration, increased the belief that nothing could save the Territory from the grasp of Great Britain but immediate settlement by American citizens."

Tensions grew when subsequent negotiations between the U.S. and Great Britain broke down and many politicians demanded that Polk annex the entire Oregon Country up to latitude 54°40'N (hundreds of miles north of the 49th parallel). The resulting turmoil gave rise to nationalistic American slogans such as "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" Brinkmanship by Polk and domestic distractions in Great Britain finally helped lead to the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, thus setting the boundary at the current 49th parallel and giving sole possession of the Oregon Country south of there to the United States.

In the spring of 1848 Joseph Lafayette Mee traveled to Washington, DC. On his way to the nation's capital, he described himself as "envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Republic of Oregon to the court of the United States." While in Washington, he argued forcefully for making the Oregon Country a federal territory. Congress granted the petition and Meek, now elevated to U.S. marshal, accompanied newly appointed territorial governor Joseph Lane to Oregon in the spring of 1849. It was his job as marshal in 1850 to hang the five Cayuse Indian men convicted in relation to the Whitman massacre. Meek served in the Yakima Indian War from 1855 to 1856 before retiring to his farm.

On June 15, 1846, the treaty with Great Britain was signed which secured to the United States the territory of Oregon lying south of the forty-ninth parallel of latitude. The Oregon question was thus settled, and it was supposed that the American government would at once proceed to organize a government for the newly acquired territory. It was not, however, until August 14, 1848, that the bill providing for the organization of Oregon as a territory became law. This unexpected delay, caused by the opposition of the pro-slavery leaders in Congress to the clause in the Oregon Provisional Government declaring that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, should ever be permitted in the territory, was peculiarly galling to the citizens of Oregon, who felt that although their efforts had been largely responsible for the acquisition of this valuable territory by the United States government, that government was now refusing them necessary assistance and protection.

1860 - Pacific Republic

The election of 1848 placed the patronage of the government in the control of the Whig Party, and the incoming government was not slow in bestowing all available positions on office-hungry Whigs. Oregon soon felt the weight of this policy. The Democratic officials who had already won the confidence and respect of the people were replaced by Whigs. A period of bitter political strife followed this change.

So it was that during the critical period of US history from 1850 to 1865 when the forces making for the destruction of the American Union were gathering impetus for their most dangerous attack on the integrity of the national government, and when the Pacific Railroad had not yet bound the West to the East with bands of shining steel there developed on the Pacific Coast a movement for the establishment of a Pacific Coast Republic. While it is true that the movement was supported by but a minority of the people of the Pacific Coast, the fact of its inception by political leaders of the West is significant.

While the first cause of the movement may be considered the spirit of the West, its immediate occasion was the conflict of local and national interests which became especially marked after 1855. Democratic leaders also soon found it difficult to submit to the superior power of the national government. Their proud necks chafed under the yoke imposed by Eastern officials appointed by an unsympathetic Congress. This feeling was particularly strong during the Whig administration of President Taylor, and loud were the complaints and many the protests launched against the custom of filling Oregon offices with foreign appointees.

Two possible remedies appear to have suggested themselves to the Democratic leaders—statehood and independence. A movement for statehood was actually set on foot in 1851, and also in that year appeared the first accusation that the leaders of the Oregon Democracy designed at no distant day to throw off their allegiance to the United States government and attempt to set up an independent republic.

It was during these troublous times that the rumor of a plan to establish a Pacific Republic — a plan inaugurated by some of the Democratic leaders — again became persistent. In July, 1855, an editorial headed "Our Future," appeared in the Standard (Democratic) suggesting the idea of the formation of an independent nation west of the Rockies as being in harmony with the designs of an all-wise Providence, by whom this natural boundary had been laid down.

The leader ran, in brief: "In a new country there are no old associations, no stereotyped habits which filter in an accustomed routine our actions and our thoughts, but the customs which we were wont to have in our homes have given away to those which are formed by our new associations. Yes, it is indeed too true that we must look for new and energetic governments in recently settled countries. The British colonies of North America passed through a Revolution, and reared for themselves the proudest republic on the face of the earth."

In September 1855 the Statesman had some farther information to give concerning the Revolutionary scheme.1 A letter from an anonymous correspondent in San Francisco, reprinted from an exchange, set forth details of the plan: "A new Republic is to be formed, consisting at first of ten states, three to be formed within the present limits of the State of California, three in Oregon Territory, two in Washington Territory, and two from western portions of Utah and New Mexico [ed: roughly modern Nevada and Arizona]. The basis is to be a confederated government similar to yours on the Atlantic Side. The great Pacific Railroad is to be abandoned, and every obstacle thrown in the way of its con- ,struction, while the argument at the hustings is to be made to the people that the government at Washington has refused the road to the people of the Pacific. The question of slavery is to be adjured and disclaimed until the plan is so far executed that there can be no retraction, after which the southern four or five states will adopt slavery.....

"The Sandwich Islands are to be guaranteed their independence and the United States are to be appealed to in a tone of friendly good-bye. Here you perceive an opening for all the prominent politicians, a field for the military and naval aspirants, a call for powder mills, and ordnance foundries. You may also guess how readily such a severance will be graciously received by England, France and Spain."

But the Kansas strife reversed the stand taken by the majority of Oregonians on the statehood question, and in the election of 1857 the vote for statehood was carried by a majority of 5,938. The change in sentiment was due to the dread instilled in the hearts of the people lest scenes might in the future be enacted in Oregon corresponding to those in "Bleeding Kansas." The securing of statehood as soon as possible seemed the best method of prevention. On February 12, 1859, the Statehood Bill was passed by the House, and on February 14 it became law.

The ultra-southern Democrats steadfastly opposed the bill because they feared the admission of any more northern states, whether Democratic or otherwise, or possibly because they, too, desired to see Oregon a state outside the Union. Today it is freely admitted that had Oregon failed of admission before the election of 1860 she could not have been received before 1864 or 1865, and with secession doctrines so rife in Oregon what the result might have been is difficult to tell.

The Statesman of July 17, 1860, under the head of "The Lane and Gwin Conspiracy" said : "It is openly charged by Washington correspondents that Gwin (Senator from California) and Lane have entered into a conspiracy with Southern Congressmen to break up the Democratic organization as a preliminary step to breaking up the Union, out of which three republics are to be formed. The states east to be divided on the line of the free and slave states, forming two governments, and the Pacific Slope to constitute the third. But the dream of these political gamesters will not be accomplished, in their lifetime, at least. Even in the event that a secession movement should take place in the cotton states, California and Oregon when the test comes will remain true to the Union."

During 1860 the Republican and DouglasDemocratic Press offered from time to time more detailed information as to the great conspiracy. It was shown that the Senators and Representatives from California, the Senator and Representatives from Oregon and the delegation from Washington Territory, representing altogether a little more than a million of people, had held a caucus and resolved to favor disunion and the formation of three separate republics, and that the formation of a Pacific Coast Republic was broached and advocated in case of a dissolution of the Union by Senator Latham of California.

In December, 1860, fairly complete details of the plan were given. The Pacific Republic was to be an aristocracy after the model of the ancient republic of Venice, all the power being vested in an hereditary nobility, the chief executive being elected on a very limited suffrage. Slaves were to be procured by inviting coolies, South Sea Islanders, and negroes to immigrate to California, and then reducing them to slavery. Gwin, it appeared, favored a separate republic on the Pacific Coast because he feared that the aggressive policy of the southern leaders would be likely to involve the other states in continual difficulties. While the details of the plan might excite suspicion as the elaborations of a journalistic imagination, the truth of the main outline appears to have been fairly well substantiated.

In commenting on the plan Bush of the Statesman said: "What a ridiculous figure would the Pacific Republic cut among the nations. With a population of little more than half a million scarcely able to protect ourselves from the inroads of the Indians upon our borders, hardly rich enough to sustain the expenses of our economical state governments, and dependent upon the bounty of the general government for military protection, mail facilities, and for the salaries of a large number of our public functionaries, what would be our fate were we to cast ourselves loose from the protection and assistance which we receive from it. Burdened with a host of new officers and salaries, poor, feeble, defenceless contemptible, we should become the spoil of arrogant officials at home, and be at the mercy of every petty rival abroad. Now we rejoice in the pride of our strength—the strength of a great and powerful nation. Sundered from our parent states our pitiable weakness would render us a bye-word and a reproach among neighboring nations. 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."

Although the Radical Democratic party still had a strong following in Oregon, the fact that the Republicans had carried the state in 1860 made it fairly certain that no disunion scheme could have weight in Oregon. A leading politician writing to Senator Nesmith early in 1861 said: "You will see a good deal of blowing about a Pacific Republic for this coast. It doesn't amount to anything now. If the Union should go into more than two pieces then it would most likely become a fact, and rather a small one."

Certainly there had been little chance of such a movement succeeding. While many people in Oregon believed in the sacred right of secession, but few were sufficiently interested to take up arms in defense of the right.




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Page last modified: 19-10-2017 15:23:43 ZULU