Sunday, March 24, 2013

Etulain: "LINCOLN AND OREGON COUNTRY POLITICS IN THE CIVIL WAR ERA"

[Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era by Richard W. Etulain (Oregon State University Press, 2013). Softcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:178/222. ISBN:978-0-87071-702-4 $19.95]

Richard Etulain is a prominent scholar associated with the study of Abraham Lincoln's connections with the Far West. He recently edited a series of essays under the title Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific (SIUP, 2010), and his new narrative history study, Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era, draws elements from his earlier work. As one can see from the cover art, the "Oregon Country" referred to in the book comprises the state of Oregon and the territories of Washington, Idaho, and the western part of Montana.

One of the main points Etulain wishes to impart to readers is his contention that the citizens of the Oregon Country were far more involved in the Civil War and the issues surrounding it than earlier scholars (including Robert Johannsen) believed. While this is difficult to conclusively demonstrate in a brief, top down political study like this one, one might draw some indirect conclusions. For instance, while Lincoln won the state of Oregon in the 1860 election, he did so with scarcely more than one-third of the vote (with almost two thirds going to the two Democratic tickets). By 1864, Lincoln won an outright majority, showing that many Democrats who opposed the administration on matters of the Emancipation Proclamation, wartime civil liberties, and the draft, nevertheless were willing to support a war for the preservation of the Union.  Of course other factors were involved, but, at some level, the political fusion that existed implies a deep investiture in the nation beyond regional concerns.

Another major theme of the book is its examination of Lincoln's part in establishing a Republican Party base in the Pacific Northwest, both through maintaining correspondence with politically influential friends residing there and with patronage appointments to state and territorial posts. The four men most closely profiled are Illinois friends David Logan, Dr. Anson Henry, Simeon Francis, and Oregon latecomer Edward Baker. These men didn't always agree with Lincoln on the issues (popular sovereignty being one of the more significant ones) and Logan essentially disappeared from the scene, but, all through the 1850s, they kept Lincoln apprised of the goings on in the region. Baker became a senator, and, during the war years, Dr. Henry (appointed surveyor-general for Washington Territory) was the most active in advising the president on friends and enemies, appointments, and the political situation in general.

According to Etulain, where Lincoln fell flat was in his high level patronage appointments at the territorial level.  Particularly in Montana and Idaho, a string of territorial governors were so stridently partisan and politically inept that they could not deal with the Democratic majorities that prevailed at the legislative level. Due to this failure, the author describes the territories as administratively unstable throughout the war years. While Lincoln was interested in maintaining communications with the Oregon County in the 1850s, according to Etulain, he became less and less engaged during the Civil War, with his time and energies directed closer to home. This frustrated some of his friends. Dr. Henry dearly wanted the national post of commissioner of the Indian Bureau, and believed he had a right to expect it given his longstanding loyalty and work on Lincoln's behalf, but the president repeatedly rebuffed his requests. The author also characterizes the president as essentially unengaged on the touchy issue of relations with the local Indian population.

The actions of chief Democratic figures in antebellum and Civil War Oregon Country, like Senator James Nesmith and Governor Isaac Stevens, are recounted in the text, but I would like to have seen more coverage of how the administration handled or mishandled dissent in the Oregon County during the Civil War. While the draft was not instituted in the Oregon Country and the Republican administration had a friend in the editor of the influential Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Democratic newspapers up the Willamette River were administration critics and several were suppressed during the war. Military appointments in the Oregon County, and how those officers in charge interacted with local government officials and the civilian population, are also only addressed in passing.

The final chapter of the book offers a useful historiographical summary of Lincoln's connections with the Oregon Country and how they are recognized today, if at all. In addition to his bibliography, Etulain also includes a very good bibliographical essay. At least in terms of books, the latter is fairly all encompassing, and those interested in further reading will find the essay a good starting point for their efforts. New releases dealing with the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest remain rare, but Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era is a fine addition to the existing scholarly literature. It is also gratifying to see Oregon State University Press willing to publish on the subject. Hopefully, others in the region will take note.

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