Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated every Feb. 12 as a national holiday. Lincoln is one of the United States’ best-loved presidents, the man who brought an end to slavery and saw us through the Civil War. But how many people know that he was once offered the governorship of Oregon? And how would history have changed if he had accepted?
According to a Feb. 12, 1964, Associated Press story by Paul W. Harvey Jr., Lincoln completed his service as a U.S. representative from Illinois on March 4, 1849. He didn’t want to return to Springfield; instead, he was hoping to land an appointment as a U.S. land commissioner. President Zachary Taylor had promised the job would go to an Illinois man. But since Lincoln had opposed Henry Clay at the 1848 Whig convention, Clay retaliated by blocking Lincoln’s appointment to the plum job. President Taylor then named Lincoln a secretary of the Oregon Territory and offered him the governorship.
Lincoln’s presidential secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, wrote in their biography that Lincoln wanted to go west and some of his friends urged him to accept the appointment. They claimed Oregon would soon become a state and then Lincoln could return to Washington, D.C., as a senator. But Oregon statehood did not come about until 1859 — the eve of the Civil War. And by then Lincoln was well on his way to becoming president.
Lincoln did not accept the appointment, his biographers said, “on account of the natural unwillingness of his wife to remove to a country so wild and remote.”
But while Lincoln did not become governor of the Oregon territory (he did not, in fact, ever visit Oregon), he did change life in our state through three key pieces of legislation, according to an Oregon Public Broadcasting story from 2009. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 gave railroads thousands of acres of land and brought many people west. Lincoln’s Homestead Act also brought thousands of homesteaders to the area. And Lincoln was also responsible for “land grant colleges,” where senators and congressmen were given land for state use. Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of Idaho are all located on land from these grants.