A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Three - The Slavery Debates 1850-1857
and was widely admired as a veteran of the Mexican War. Well known as a Southerner, he was sympathetic to slave-owning interests, but in the 1850's remained silent on the subject of slavery.
Party leadership centered around a nucleus of powerful men, primarily interested in the pursuit of high office and control over the distribution of political spoils. Dubbed the "Salem Clique" by its critics, the group included Asahel Bush, publisher of the Oregon Statesman; Delazon Smith, James W. Nesmith, R.P. Boise, and Lafayette Grover. All were later to be appointed or elected to high public office.
Quick to applaud the doctrine of popular sovereignty, primarily as it offered more political power to the local party, the Democratic leadership downplayed the slavery issue, hoping to avoid the divisive effects of controversy that had weakened their national organization. Discussion of slavery by free state Democrats was equated with slavery agitation, labeled "Black Republican" or "abolitionist," and slavery agitation meant disloyalty to the party. As one observer of the political scene recalled,
According to the theory of squatter sovereignty, a Democrat might vote for or against slavery, when a Territory is emerging to statehood; he could express his individual opinion by ballot at this time, but he could not promulgate it and give the reason for it or try to influence others and maintain his standing as a Democrat. If he did, he was thereafter considered a heretic, out of line of promotion or patronage, a punishment the dullest Democrat could feel and understand?
Many of the leaders of the Democratic party were pro-slavery by reputation. This planned silence worked to their advantage, effectively forbidding a anti-slavery wing to establish itself within the party and relieving them of the need to defend or define their own position concerning slavery for Oregon.
By 1857, when the agitation over slavery had reached its height in Oregon, the strength of the "Salem Clique" had weakened perceptibly. In an early caucus held that year, the party split into two factions. Those who broke away were critical of the "Salem Clique," and some, in addition, were outspoken in their support of slavery. The regular party was able to maintain control despite these defections, and in a later caucus held to elect delegates to the constitutional convention the following resolution was offered and approved:
That each member of the Democratic party in Oregon may freely speak and act according to his individual convictions of right and policy upon the question of slavery in Oregon, without in any manner impairing his standing in the Democratic party on that account--provided that nothing in these resolutions shall be construed in toleration of black republicanism, abolition, or any other factor or organization arrayed in opposition to the Democratic party.
The second political party, the Whigs, offered a weak challenge to the Democrats. Traditionally the party of aristocracy and wealth, it had few advocates in Oregon. It was loosely organized and differed little in point of view from the Democratic party. It supported the peculiar interpretation of popular sovereignty favored by most Oregonians, but on the question of slavery deferred to the authority of the federal government. Failure to offer a strong party platform opposing slavery prompted anti-slavery Whigs to organize independent of the party.
In June, 1855, an anti-slavery convention was held in Albany. Attended by Whigs, members of the clergy, and other citizens opposed to slavery, the convention adopted eight resolutions condemning the Fugitive Slave Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and vowed to fight any attempt to introduce slavery into Oregon. A program was prepared to initiate the campaign: county meetings were proposed to bring public attention to the evils of slavery, and the election of antislavery candidates and the publication of anti-slavery newspapers was supported. A meeting was plannned for the following October to prepare a formal platform.
In May, 1856, a group of Jackson County residents opposed to slavery met to create a Republican party organization. Their platform called on the federal government to prohibit slavery in the territories, but another resolution affirmed the right of the local populace to elect their public officials. Clearly, it was an attempt to redefine the doctrine of popular sovereignty in terms that would appeal to Oregonians, without taking a stand on the issue of slavery. Other political organizations opposed to slavery met, also calling themselves Republicans. Sensitive to critics that called them radicals, these Republicans modified their position on slavery, opposing it in Oregon but favoring non-interference in areas where it already existed.
In spite of the infant party's retreat from strong antislavery statements, Republicans were labeled as abolitionists and often called "Black Republicans," and most Oregonians were at first unwilling to join this party, regardless of their personal convictions on slavery in Oregon. In 1856, David Logan, a pioneer attorney, commented,
. . the Whigs are all dead out here--they call themselves the Republican party--which means negro worshippers . . . I'll see the Republicans to the devil before I'll vote with them. I don't know what I am exactly, but anything but an abolitionist?
In the early years of the 1850 the issue of slavery was the subject of an occasional article in the local newspapers. These were characteristically either attacks on the eastern abolitionist movement, or theoretical discussions of the evils of slavery. In 1851, the Oregon Statesman reprinted an article published in the Richmond, Virginia Examiner, "by request". Spread over four columns of a seven column page, the article condemned abolitionists who were working for civil rights for black people.
Their assertions that Negroes are entitled to approach our polls, to sit in our courts, to places in our Legislature are not more rational than a demand upon them that they let all adult bulls vote at their polls, all capable goats enjoy a chance at their ermine, all asses (quadruped) the privilege of running for their General Assemblies and all swine for their seats in Congress.
The same year, the Oregon Spectator published a lengthy letter from a local reader, predicting that Oregon would very soon become a state, and that the people would have to decide on several issues, the most important being slavery.
I am opposed to the principle of slavery, and in this enlightened age of civilization, and more especially in a government like ours, whose boast is its republican principles, and its free institutions, to hold in bondage (and that perpetual) a part of the race of man, is revolting in the extreme?
The author went on to say that those opposed to slavery had been able to do nothing more than keep the issue alive in the press. He maintained that anyone who sought to prevent the migration of black settlers to free states in the West was as guilty of prejudice as those who supported slavery.
If men feel so much for the race, let them endeavor to make their condition better and not endeavor to pen them up in stalls like brutes.
He concluded by proposing that those who talked about freeing slaves should buy one, bring him to Oregon and give him his freedom ...
.. not until then can the sectarian, the philanthropist, and the man that boasts of his charity say that he has done all that he could, to relieve suffering humanity.
When slavery became possible if not likely in Oregon after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the slavery issue in the press took on a more distinctly local character. Articles were often the products of rival editors engaged in political and personal warfare. The Oregon Statesman was particularly vicious in condemning outspoken anti-slavery groups, which it called "abolitionist" whether or not these groups actually advocated the total prohibition of slavery in the United States. After the anti-slavery convention held in Albany in 1855, the Oregon Statesman called the delegates "old grannies," and "nigger-struck dames," and refused to publish the resolutions passed by the convention. The editor concluded, "If anything could make the people of Oregon desire slavery, it would be the agitation of the subject by such fanatics as these. A letter from Delazon Smith, who claimed to have attended the convention, was also published.
In my humble judgement there is about as much danger--about as fair a possibility of slavery's going to the moon.., as there is of its being precipitated upon our Territory. There can be no reasonable question but that at this moment, nineteen-twentieths of the people of Oregon, would, if called upon to decide the question at the ballot box, vote against establishing slavery here?
Smith declared that there were no slaves within 3,000 miles of Oregon, and that there was no disposition among Oregonians to own them. He concluded by warning that if slavery were introduced, it would be as a reaction to the abolitionists.
Thomas Dryer, editor of the Portland Weekly Oregonian, As if thoroughly sick of the issue, he concluded:
Let us have a state government and make the issue at once. If we are to have slavery forced upon us, let it be by the people here and not by the slavery propagandists at Washington City. If the majority of the people in Oregon, fairly expressed, desire slavery, we are too much of a democrat to further oppose introduction.
Thomas Dryer continued to criticize the Democratic party, commented on the appearance of pro-slavery newspapers, criticized outspoken supporters of slavery and urged his readers to decide on the issue independent of party affiliation. His editorial tone was frequently shrill and repetitive; as a representative of the minority political party he spent a good deal of energy engaged in private warfare with the Democrats. Dryer's small press had sat on the Portland dock for months, delaying the first issue of the newspaper, where he complained that Captain Hall of the Navigation Company had said he didn't care when he delivered the freight for the "little damn Whig paper in Portland.
In spite of the invective that passed between Dryer and Bush, their position regarding slavery was similar. Both were motivated strictly by local self-interests rather than high moral or ethical ideals. Neither supported the introduction of slavery into Oregon; both sought to appeal to their readers and gain support for their own political party.
Most of the avid supporters of slavery were Democrats, and Bush pacified them by a strong condemnation of antislavery agitators. His opposition to slavery was based on economic considerations. In March, 1857, he predicted that the voters would not be influenced by moral or judicial considerations, but would vote in terms of the economic advantages or disadvantages of slavery. He admitted that Oregon would probably come into the Union as a free state, but warned again that if abolitionists flocked to Oregon the citizens would react by supporting slavery. He stated:
We have no slaves here. A very few blacks who were slaves in the states have been brought by their owners, but they have understood they were free. The courts, when appealed to, have declared them free, by virtue of the act of Congress. We have but few free niggers here, but quite as many of that class as we wish ever to see? In a later editorial Bush expressed the desire to see constitutional provisions which would exclude black people from Oregon, and make it a crime for any white person to bring blacks into the state. In addition, he suggested that laws be passed which would prevent them from buying real estate, bringing a suit in court, or enforcing any contracts or agreements. Black people should not be allowed to become citizens in any real sense, he believed, and would be placed under such disadvantages as would tend to discourage them from trying to come to Oregon.
With these restrictions, disabilities and consequent prohibition of negroes and mulattoes, we are for a free state in Oregon · . . In arriving at this conclusion we are not influenced by hostility to the institution of African slavery per se. We are of the opinion that in the sugar and cotton growing states it is a necessary, if not undispensible system of labor. We believe, also that the African, whatever his "nominal" condition, is destined to be the servant and subordinate of the superior white race and that it is best for both races that the servitude and subordination should be regulated by law. And we believe, also that the wisdom of man has not yet devised a system under which the negro is as well off as he is under that of American slavery. Still we think that our climate, soil, situation, population, etc., render [it] to any useful extent an "impossible" institution for Oregon?
Bush encouraged his readers to contribute letters on slavery which he printed, as well as editorials from other newspapers which expressed his philosophy. One citizen, F.S. Martin, argued in favor of slavery in a letter published in August, 1857. Martin stated that slaves would thrive in Oregon's mild climate and that crops could be easily harvested by them. He predicted that Oregon could not reach its agricultural potential without slave labor, and that the population would quickly double if they were introduced.
Other letters published during 1857 opposed or favored slavery on economic grounds. Those opposed feared that the state would be flooded with abolitionists if slavery were introduced, and the close proximity of free areas would make it difficult to retrieve slaves if they ran away. Some opposed slavery because it would create a slave owning aristocracy, reminiscent of the "poor white" fears expressed by Jesse Applegate. One correspondent wrote,
I see no reason why the scarcity of women in Oregon should cause us to bring here the withering blighting curse of slavery--to create style and establish an aristocratic spirit in our midst--to cause the rich man with his slaves to lord it over his poor neighbor--to see our sons working side by side with the rich man's slave?
Politics in the early months of 1857 had become a confusing spectacle of rival factions intent on breaking the stranglehold of the Salem Clique, thought to be in control of the majority of Oregonians, still silent on the issue of slavery. But when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, declaring that only a sovereign state could legally prohibit slavery, one thing became clear. Oregon must vote for statehood, and soon if slavery was to be avoided. The process for calling a convention was conducted with amazing speed, and without the consent of the federal government. Application for statehood was approved in June, 1857, and delegates convened in August to write the constitution. By the time of the constitutional convention, the slavery issue had substantially eroded the power of the "Salem Clique," and onethird of the delegates were independent of its control.
The End of Chapter Three
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