A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Four - Within Every Rule
The main opposition to statehood had come from southern Congressmen, who feared that the admission of Oregon would upset the balance between slave and free states. Once Congress had an opportunity to examine the constitution, objections were raised by northern Congressmen as well. Several Senators expressed dismay over the exclusion clause. Senator Wilson of Massachusetts, for example, regretted that he could not approve the admission of Oregon, but said that its constitution contained provisions that were "inhuman and unchristian", He admitted that black people in Massachusetts had not attairted full social equality, but believed that they were accorded full rights as citizens under the law. He defended the character of black people and their participation in the Revolutionary War, observing that the rights of Massachusetts black people would be severely restricted should they ever visit Oregon.
If the descendants of those brave men should go on board a whale ship, go to the Pacific Ocean, land in Oregon, in stress of weather, it may be, go on shore, be smitten down, nearly murdered, by white villians, without cause, they cannot maintain a suit in the courts of that State. They may be abused, they may be murdered, any outrage may be inflicted, any indignity may be put upon them, but they cannot maintain a suit in the Courts of that State to protect them in their personal rights. Is this not inhuman, unchristian, devilish? I cannot vote to sanction a proposition which outlaws men for no crime.
Senators opposed to the exclusion clause believed that Congress had the power to admit or deny admission to any state because of discriminatory laws (although they could not censure a state already admitted for the same reason).
Many Senators, however, defended the constitution, saying that Oregonians had every right to exclude black people if they wished to do so. They pointed out the ordered way in which it had been written, while Kansas was involved in a bitter struggle for admission with a constitution that proposed to protect slaveowners and exclude free black people. One Senator argued:
Oregon is within every rule that has been laid down to justify the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution, and, at the same time, she has avoided every objection that has been urged as a insuperable one to the admission of Kansas?
The bill to admit Oregon was passed in the Senate in May, 1858. Once again it was referred to the House, and later that year became involved in a partisan struggle. Some members of the House repeated objections to the exclusion clause, but the partisan contest was essentially between Republicans favoring the admission of Kansas, and Democrats the admission of Oregon. The final vote in the House reflected these alignments: three-fifths of the southern vote, all Democrats, favored admission, while over four-fifths of the Republicans voted against it. The final vote was 114 in favor, 103 opposed. President Buchanan signed the bill two dayst later, and on February 14, 1859, Oregon became a state. It holds the distinction of being the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause in its constitution. It was a clear victory for settlers who came to the Far West to escape the racial troubles of the East. Oregon was to remain a remote Eden, dedicated to the destinies of white men only.
Between the writing of the Constitution and formal admission to the Union, the territorial legislature continued to meet and, in 1857, bills to protect slave property were proposed, indicating that the laws in Oregon banning slavery were not always observed.
Some evidence of slavery can be found in court cases and legal records of transfers of property. The most famous court case concerned the Holmes children. In the early 1850's Joseph Teal purchased a black boy and his grandmother from a man named Southworth, who lived in Lane County. Teal freed the pair, and they settled on the Long Tom River near Junction City. A black woman, Luteshia Censor, sued the estate of her former owner for wages she had earned while living in Oregon? Other less formal arrangements existed between whites and blacks who came to Oregon together, but in 1857 it became clear that some slaves were being held in Oregon in the same sense as slaves were held in other areas of the country.
The Legislative Assembly of 1857, uncertain of its authority, accomplished little. As if to illustrate the frivolity of the session, Thomas Dryer, writing shortly before the session ended, concluded by remarking that the leading subject of attention seemed to be granting petitions of divorce. "There seems to be a wonderful amount of matrimonial unhappiness in Oregon . . .
The government was in limbo. Still bound by territorial law, it awaited admission to the Union under a free constitution. The Dred Scott decision had denied the power of a territory to legislate against slaveowners, and thus, barely two months after voters had rejected slavery, bills to protect slave property were proposed. William Allen, a Democrat from Yamhill County, introduced the resolution.
. . . it has been decided by the Supreme Court of the United States,. that Congress has no power to prohibit the introduction of slavery into the Territory... slavery is tolerated by the Constitution of the United States; Therefore, Resolved, That the Chair appoint a committee of three, to report what legislation is necessary to protect the rights of persons holding slaves in this Territory?
He then commented:
. . . I don't see any reason why we should not have laws protecting slavery. There are slaves here, but no laws to regulate or protect this kind of property?
Debate against the Allen resolution was led by Thomas Dryer, who reminded the Assembly that the voters of Oregon had just banned slavery. The majority were opposed to the resolution, and it was easily defeated, but during the course of debate several members admitted that they knew people who owned slaves. J.W. Mack said that one of his neighbors in Lane County owned slaves, and was in California trying to test the validity of the Fugitive Slave Law to recover some of his runaway slaves. Mack argued in favor of the resolution, in spite of the vote that had just been taken.
It makes no difference whether the constitution prohibits slavery or not, the fact is there are men here who own property in slaves. Are they to be protected in that property? I have no idea but this legislation will be lost the very day after the constitution takes effect, but slaveowners have a right to ask protection till then.
Another member said that although he had voted for a free state, Oregon was still a territory and should pass laws protecting slaveowners, and also slaves· He predicted, "In all probability before another year shall roll around, we shall have double the number of slaves we have here now. Why not give them some protection?
The resolution was indefinitely postponed, but Allen, not satisfied, introduced another resolution near the end of the session. When Thomas Dryer objected, saying that slavery did not exist in Oregon, Allen responded:
The gentleman says that slavery does not exist here. Well, it has been proved, upon this floor that slavery does exist in this Territory in several counties. There are some in Benton, Lane, Polk, Yamhill, and I know not how many other counties. That matter was fairly proved on this floor on a former occasion, and I do not deem it necessary to bring any other proof than the veracity of honorable gentlemen who are representatives of their constituents here... Well, sir, slavery property is herel It then becomes our duty to protect that property as recognized by the constitution of the United States?
After listening to a long speech in opposition to the resolution, Allen withdrew it, as defeat was certain.
Between the introduction of the two resolutions, Allen presented a petition from M.R. Crisp and forty-six other citizens, asking the legislators to pass a law protecting slave property. Two days later, Allen offered a lengthy bill in response to the petition. Nine sections were devoted to procedures by which runaway slaves were to be apprehended and returned to their owners. Fines were to be levied against anyone aiding a runaway slave, to compensate for the economic loss to their owner. Any master convicted of mistreating a slave would be fined twenty dollars. The bill was defeated by a vote of fifteen to seven.
Oregon's constitution provided for an election to be held on the first Monday of June to elect the first state officials, and although Oregon was not yet formally admitted to the Union, these elections were held in 1858. The Democratic party was successful in securing the election of its party nominees for Congress and state governor, and seated a majority in the state legislature. Oregonians, who had the previous year banned slavery, now elected as governor John Whiteaker and as congressional representative Lafayette Grover, both of whom were outspoken in their support of slavery.
The state legislature was scheduled to meet in the autumn of 1858, but its members, realizing that they had no legal authority, deferred to the members of the territorial assembly and the last session was convened in December. The question of slave property was again considered, prompted by four petitions presented on behalf of slave-owning citizens of Oregon. Another slave protection bill was drafted, and eventually defeated. The assembly was uncertain of its legal authority and reluctant to pass laws which might outrage national public sentiment.
The paradox that existed in Oregon politics in the late 1850's, demonstrated in the contradictory votes to prohibit slavery, support laws that would protect slaveowners, and elect a pro-slavery governor and representative to Congress, was not without a recent precedent on the West Coast. Californians had also elected slavery sympathizers, William H. Gwin and John B. Weller, to deliver its free state constitution to Congress. One observer accounted for the inconsistency in California by explaining the motivations of the voters.
From mere selfishness, they could not brook slavery within their own borders, but they wanted to be citizens of a State and sovereign over their own local affairs, and knowing that slavery was dominant in the general government, they must present as few points of antagonism as possible to the powers that be, so that their prayer for admission might be speedily realized. Besides, they wanted appropriations for their harbors and rivers and coast defenses, and none of these were likely to be answered when presented by men opposed to their system?
Oregonians were unwilling to censure their leaders simply because they held pro-slavery views. Possibly they did not care. They were also motivated by personal and economic considerations. Even some free-state Democrats had been known to say, "I shall vote against slavery, but if it carries I shall get me a nigger. The repeated introduction of bills to protect slave property is indicative of the existence of a die-hard pro-slavery faction in Oregon that refused to admit defeat.
The End of Chapter Four
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