What if…Joseph Lane of Oregon had become President in 1861?

A few years ago, I was fascinated by the possibility that a certain Joseph Lane, rather than Abraham Lincoln, might have become President in 1861. I actually accumulated quite a file of research and notes, which I have since lost. I’m not the only one who considered the Joseph Lane scenario – many people during the 1860 election discussed it. Let me introduce Joseph Lane, consider the scenario in which he might have become President, and briefly discuss what might have happened in an alternate dimension which included the Joseph Lane presidency.

Joseph Lane was born in North Carolina and grew up in Kentucky, never losing the political predilections associated with this slave-state upbringing. He moved to Indiana as a youth and entered business and politics. A career as a Democrat in the Indiana legislature was interrupted by a stint as a general in the Mexican War, whence he returned a war hero. While still in military service, he was sent to Oregon as governor of that recently-organized territory, fighting against the Native Americans. He was elected Oregon territorial delegate to Congress – having been denied the 1852 Democratic Presidential nomination as Indiana’s favorite son. When Oregon became a state, Lane was studiously neutral on whether Oregonians should legalize slavery (Oregon voters strongly rejected slavery, while rejecting free blacks too). Lane was elevated from the position of territorial delegate to the role of Senator from Oregon. Lane associated himself with the ultra-proslavery Southern Democrats and their doctrine of allowing slavery in all federal territories. This earned him the Vice-Presidential nomination of the Southern Democrats, making him the running-mate of Presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.[i

As the Presidential election of 1860 approached, Abraham Lincoln had enough momentum in the North that many saw him as heading to victory. There was one scenario, however, which made Republicans nervous and gave some measure of hope to Lincoln’s opponents. What if, in the key state of New York, supporters of the three anti-Lincoln candidates united behind a single slate of electors? In our dimension, such a “Fusion” ticket was formed, but Lincoln still carried New York, and the country, in the election (in New York state, Lincoln managed the today-implausible feat of overcoming the Democratic vote in New York City with the Republican vote upstate).[ii]

But it might have been otherwise. The “Fusion” ticket might have beaten Lincoln, denying him a national electoral majority.

Without an electoral majority for any candidate, political prognosticators anticipated, events would set in motion a Rube Goldberg process culminating in Joseph Lane becoming President. How would this have worked?

The scenario would have played out like this, according to those who hoped for, or else worried about, it: With no electoral majority, the House of Representatives, each state delegation having one vote, would have had to choose a President among the top three electoral vote-getters. The top candidates would have included Lincoln (who would have taken most Northern states) and Breckinridge (who would have taken numerous Southern states). Either Bell or Douglas would have been the third-place finisher. Who would have gotten a majority of House delegations in that confused situation? Maybe nobody – the House might have been divided against itself.

Which brings us to the Senate. The Twelfth Amendment, governing Presidential elections, provides that without an electoral majority, the Senate chooses between the top two Vice-Presidential candidates (not the top three Presidential candidates as in the House). If the Republicans got a plurality of the electoral votes and the Southern Democrats were the runners-up, then the choice would have been between Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, and Joseph Lane, Breckinridge’s VP candidate.

Most Senators were Democrats, though many of them detested the Breckenridge faction. But faced with a choice between Lane, a Democrat, and the Republican Hamlin, the majority Democrats might have closed ranks and elected Lane.

If the House was so divided as to leave the post of President vacant, then, under the Twelfth Amendment’s provisions at the time, Lane as Vice President would have taken over the Presidency.

Many Republicans, aware of these possibilities, told the voters that the choices were down to Lincoln or Lane. This seems to have influenced at least some voters to support Lincoln, preferring a definite candidate to the Goldbergesque weirdness of the process which would have produced Lane.

But travelling to President Lane’s dimension: assuming a Lane presidency, the South would presumably not have seceded, given the comfort of a proslavery President. What of the Northern reaction to Lane’s selection? Si Sheppard suggests that clashes between a Lane-dominated federal government and Northerners, based on attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, might have reached the point of a full-blown Northern insurrection, so that there would have been a Civil War after all.

In the absence of a Northern uprising, what may have happened under President Lane? I’d like to consider one aspect of this question by looking at someone who might have been a key Presidential advisor in President Lane’s dimension.

Robert Dale Owen[iii] was the son of a rich socialist, and was himself, in many respects, a chip off the old socialist bloc. Robert Dale’s dad, the Scotsman Robert Owen, thought that by setting up utopian socialist communes, he would provide an alternative to the exploitation supposedly inherent in the capitalist system. One of Robert Owen’s attempted communes was New Harmony, Indiana, where loyal son Robert Dale Owen moved to carry out his father’s schemes. When New Harmony residents found socialism impractical, the community became a somewhat more conventional American town. Robert Dale Owen liked his new environment enough that he became a naturalized American citizen and a Democratic politician, serving in the Indiana legislature with Joseph Lane – whom he befriended – and in the U. S. House.

Yet Owen largely retained his family’s political and social radicalism. He pursued working-class politics, birth control, property rights for married women, easier divorce, and spiritualism. He befriended other radical reformers. One reform he avoided, though, was abolitionism (despite an early, brief sponsorship of an interracial commune). Owen supported colonization and voted to bar additional free blacks from migrating to Indiana.

Owen was one of the backers of his friend Joseph Lane’s favorite-son candidacy in 1852, and along with other Laneites he shifted his support to Franklin Pierce when Lane turned out not to be politically viable. With Pierce as President, and with Lane’s support, Owen obtained diplomatic appointments in Europe. Democrats may have been pleased to get Owen, with his radical eccentricities, out of the country during the 1850s.

Robert Dale Owen
Robert Dale Owen, Wikimedia Commons

Now let’s contrast the careers of Joseph Lane and his radical friend in our dimension, with how things may have turned out in President Lane’s dimension. First, let’s look at our dimension: Lane supported the seceding states during the Secession Winter of 1860-1861, after which he retired to Oregon, his political influence at an end. Owen became a key advisor to the Unionist Republican governor of Indiana, Oliver Morton. Owen also became converted to the cause of emancipation. With a newfound racial egalitarianism, during Reconstruction Owen proposed an early version of what became the Fourteenth Amendment, including a ban on racial discrimination.

Moving now to the alternate dimension of a President Lane term from 1861 to 1865, let’s assume Robert Dale Owen came to the White house as an advisor to his old friend. With his penchant for outside-the-box thinking, Owen would presumably have showered President Lane with schemes for reform. On the subject of slavery, perhaps Owen would have proposed to solve the issue of territorial slavery by admitting the remaining U. S. territories as states (the extreme Southern faction of which Lane was an ally accepted that states, as opposed to territories, could stop their residents from holding slaves). Then Owen might have managed to get President Lane’s support for new policies to take attention away from slavery and bring the country into a discussion of other issues. Workers’ rights (for white workers), votes for women, easy divorce, federal promotion of birth control – all would have been on the table for the President’s friend and counselor. Who knows if Lane would have accepted these ideas, and whether they would have been diverting enough to take the country away from thoughts of secession and war.

Maybe Owen, with his interest in spiritualism, would have even held séances in the White House![iv]


[i] For Lane’s career, see Sister M. Margaret Jean Kelly, The Career of Joseph Lane, Frontier Politician (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1942); James E. Hendrickson, Joe Lane of Oregon: Machine Politics and the Sectional Crisis, 1849-1861 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

[ii] For analysis of the electoral situation in 1860, the New York Fusionist movement, the concerns about the result in Congress if Lincoln didn’t get a majority, and the possibilities of a Lane presidency, see Si Sheppard, “’Union for the Sake of the Union’: The Selection of Joseph Lane as Acting President of the United States, 1861,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 115, No. 4 (2014), pp. 502-529.

[iii] For Robert Dale Owen’s career, see Elinor Pancoast and Ann E. Lincoln, The Incorrigible Idealist: Robert Dale Owen in America (Bloomington, Indiana: The Principia Press, 1940); Richard William Leopold, Robert Dale Owen, a Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940).

[iv] In our dimension, there were séances in the Lincoln White House. See Meg Groeling, Things That Go BUMP in the Parlor: Spiritualism, Lincoln, and a Happy Hallowe’en | Emerging Civil War, October 31, 2019.

5 Responses to What if…Joseph Lane of Oregon had become President in 1861?

  1. During high school history in Rock Island County, Illinois, it was suggested that “Lincoln may have lost the debate to Douglas in 1858; but Lincoln won the re-match in 1860.” The fact that Bell and Everett were also on the ticket; and that Breckinridge and Lane (from OREGON of all places) split the Democrat ticket… It was likely assumed that “it was too much for High School students to absorb,” coupled with the “difficult-to-explain” situation of Presidential candidates being allowed on the ballot in some states, but not in others; and then having to explain HOW that was even possible (or permissible), which resulted in the overly simplistic account… the quick summarization of which allowed the Teacher to get into the meat of the module: “Lincoln’s election caused the South to secede… and the Civil War soon followed.”
    So, to the question: “What if Lane…?”
    Some even today bemoan the fact that “Lincoln only received 39.8 percent of the popular vote.” To which the appropriate response is, “Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most Southern States; yet he won the required number of Electoral votes.”
    152 Electoral votes were required for victory in 1860: New York and two other states had to NOT decide for Lincoln, in order for no candidate to receive the minimum; and for the Election to be thrown into the House of Representatives… where anything could happen, as Max Longley suggests.
    If Lane was installed as President in 1861, the problem of slavery may have been ameliorated by hastened proposals akin to those put forward by the Peace Convention of February 1861, with both sides, having looked into the abyss of war, giving ground. Or the can of conflict may have simply been kicked down the road a few years…
    Thanks for giving us “plausible outcomes” to contemplate, by introducing this massively overlooked back-alley of American Political History.

    1. Yes, there is an error in my post of 14 August: because 180 – 152 = 28 …therefore if Abraham Lincoln had not gained the Electoral votes of a single state – New York and its 35 votes – the Election of 1860 would have proceeded to the House of Representatives for determination of President. And not only do Breckinridge, Bell and Lane gain “another grab for the brass ring,” but the Free City of Tri-Insula emerges as a real possibility…
      While conducting further research into Max Longley’s report, the below website was encountered: “Can I Keep Lincoln from Winning the 1860 Presidential Election,” an interactive game taking into consideration twenty “1860 issues” that needed to be addressed correctly [by your alter-ego, Stephen Douglas] in order to sway public opinion, and gain the necessary votes to throw the Presidential election into the House. Introduced on Vlogging Thru History on 15 AUG 2022, the 30 minutes required to view are enlightening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTWY-zND3aY

  2. thanks Max … nice to see a “what if” post that doesn’t involve combat … you definitely put your thinking cap on for this one … love the Rube Goldberg reference which is perfect with regard to your big “what if”

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