John Bidwell would have told anyone who asked him that all he ever wanted to be was a farmer, and a farmer he was, albeit on a grand scale. But he had political ambitions too. Not like William C. Gwin, who came to California specifically to become a U.S. senator and succeeded in his ambition, but in the sense that he wanted to help California progress and he wanted to rise to the top. He was intelligent, energetic, and fair-minded–he would have made a great governor. Unfortunately he never made it to the pinnacle of state government.
His first try came in 1861. He had been, throughout the 1850’s, a Democrat. He helped organize the Democratic Party in California. The Democrats dominated politics for most of the decade. In 1860 Bidwell went to the national Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina as one of eight delegates from California.
It was at this point that the Democrats went from being the predominate force in American politics to a party riven by sectionalism. Bidwell was a “Douglas” Democrat, backing Senator Stephen A. Douglas for the nomination. But the other seven California delegates, led by Senator William Gwin, were part of the pro-Southern and pro-slavery faction of the party. Although Douglas had been the front-runner leading up to the convention, the Southern wing of the party blocked his nomination. Ballot after ballot was taken, no candidate was nominated, and the convention and the party fell to pieces.
Bidwell gave his proxy for Douglas to a friend and went back to California. The warring Democrats held two separate conventions nominating rival candidates, Douglas and Breckinridge, and thus insured the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln.
Back in California Bidwell’s name was put forward for governor at the 1861 convention of Union Democrats. Four other men vied for the nomination and in the end it went to John C. Conness. Just as the Democrats were divided on the national level, so were they split in the state, and they could not win. Leland Stanford became California’s first Republican governor.
It was Bidwell’s last hurrah as a Democrat. A staunch Union man, he was disgusted with the Democrats who supported secession. He and other Democrats who stood for the Union merged with the Republicans to form what was then called the Union Party, but would eventually simply be the Republican Party.