A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Four - Within Every Rule
In June of 1857 the voters of Oregon approved the question of statehood by a vote of 7,617 to 1,679. It was approved in every county except Wasco, which took in all the area east of the Cascades. Previous elections on the question of statehood--in 1854, 1855 and 1856--had been defeated. The statehood issue was first supported by the Democratic party; Whigs and Republicans were in the minority and opposed statehood because they would not participate in political appointments or receive any other political benefits. Without some distinct advantage, voters were reluctant to approve the increase in taxation that would come with statehood.
The decisive shift in public opinion in 1857 can be traced to several events. James Buchanan was inaugurated president in March, 1857, after defeating the Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. Buchanan's record on slavery was disturbing to citizens of Oregon: he had opposed the Wilmot Proviso, supported the Compromise of 1850 which maintained the balance between slave and free states, and in 1857 attempted to force Kansas to accept the Lecompton Constitution, which would have permitted slavery there. Oregonians looked at "bloody Kansas" and feared that slavery might be forced upon them in the same way.
The Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, in March of 1857, added fuel to their fears. The decision nullified the Missouri Compromise and struck down any federal or territorial law that prevented slaveowners from owning slaves or from taking them anywhere within the borders of the United
States. Only sovereign states, said the court, could permit or forbid slavery.
In the summer of 1857, on the eve of the constitutional convention, the Oregon Statesman published a lengthy discussion of the slavery issue called a "Free State Letter," written by George H. Williams, the judge who, five years earlier awarded custody of the Holmes children to their parents. Williams argued for the admission of Oregon as a free state. In doing so, he admitted opposing his pro-slavery friends. He began by reviewing the historical decisions which had excluded slavery from Oregon, and favored a continuance of that policy. Admitting that he did not oppose slavery where it already existed, he pointed out that Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner, had supported the Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery in the Northwest Territory. He gave several examples where slavery had been on the decline in the South because of economic conditions until abolitionists interfered and brought the issue into the political arena. Indiana, like Oregon, had experienced a labor shortage and petitioned Congress to allow slavery. The petition was denied because it was not in the best economic interest of the nation to allow slavery in a northern state.
Williams next introduced a lengthy argument designed to prove that slavery was undesirable in Oregon from an economic point of view. Slave labor was involuntary, he said, and Oregon was settled and improved by those who stood to gain from their own efforts. Slaves were lazy and would work only to avoid punishment. They would be idled during the rainy winter season and might easily escape to California or Canada. Fugitive slaves might join with Indians against whites, he said, echoing earlier arguments in support of exclusion laws. The presence of free black people would degrade the labor market, and whites who were unwilling to work as domestics or field hands would move elsewhere. Williams also feared the political consequences of voting for slavery as the South did not demand it, and the North would strongly oppose it.
Can Oregon, with her great claims, present and prospective, upon the government, afford to throw away the friendship of the North-- the overruling power of the nation--for the sake of slavery? He urged the people of Oregon to consult their own best interests and vote for a free state. While disclaiming any sympathy for abolitionists, he maintained that the federal government had no power to decide the issue for the people of Oregon, and denied that Democrats had to support slavery out of party loyalty.
Williams later commented on this letter and the slavery debates of 1857. Many of the Democrats who supported slavery, he maintained, were from the border states of the Midwest and held large claims of land which they were finding difficult to cultivate alone. Under the apprehension that their arguments would convince the majority to support slavery, he wrote the letter.
In August, 1857, in a year of intense debate over slavery, delegates met in Salem to write the state constitution. The convention elected as its president Matthew Deady, the only delegate to run on a pro-slavery ticket. Of the sixty delegates, thirty-one were farmers. The rest were lawyers, miners, newspaper writers, one civil engineer, and three territorial judges. Information given about the delegates' last state of residence before moving to Oregon reveals that forty-seven of the sixty delegates had lived in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa or Missouri. Many were probably familiar with exclusion laws or constitutional exclusion clauses considered in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.
Thomas Dryer, a delegate, published an editorial shortly after the convention opened complaining bitterly about the leadership that was emerging, the election of Deady as president, and the solidarity the Democrats were displaying in support of the "Salem Clique". Even George Williams, suffering from criticism in the aftermath of the publication of his "Free State Letter," had come crawling back to the fold. "Freedom and slavery," Dryer declared, "are apparently the only questions which excite the least interest or are talked about.
Matthew Deady appointed nine delegates to a committee authorized to prepare the schedule of issues to be submitted to the voters, which included the approval of the constitution and the dual questions of slavery and an exclusion clause. All questions concerning slavery were to be referred to this committee and not discussed on the floor of the convention. The majority of the members of this committee held pro-slavery views. ' After these opening maneuvers, the slavery issue was dropped. Only Jesse Applegate, fearing that debates over slavery would dominate the convention, introduced a resolution declaring all debate on slavery out of order. This resolution was defeated and the delegates proceeded to draft the constitution, relying for guidance on the constitutions of midwestern states, particularly Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan.
Contrary to prediction, slavery was not again debated, but the status of black people was discussed as clauses were proposed. The right to vote was restricted to white men only and specifically denied to black men. After some debate, Chinese were excluded as well. An attempt was made to limit public schools to white children only, but was defeated because it would exclude half-breed children.
An exclusion clause to be inserted into the Bill of Rights, if approved by the voters, was debated, and an unsuccessful effort was made to strike it from the ballot. Some delegates wanted to include Chinese in the exclusion clause, and the relative merits of blacks and Chinese as laborers were debated. Some delegates felt that Chinese made better domestic servants, while others said they were a great evil in the mines. George Williams argued that Oregon shoud be reserved for white people, while Thomas Dryer said he "would vote to exclude Negroes, Chinamen, Kanakas, and even Indians. The association of these races with the white was the demoralization of the latter?
The constitution was adopted by the delegates in September, but the vote was not unanimous. Ten voted against adoption, and fifteen others were absent, including Jesse Applegate, who had left the convention in disgust. In a letter to Matthew Deady he wrote,
. . the free Negro section is perfectly abominable, and it is hard to realize that men having hearts and consciences, some of them today in the front ranks of the defenders of human rights, could be led so far by party prejudice as to put such an article in the frame of a government intended to be free and just.
During the debate preceding the vote to adopt, Thomas Dryer and William Watkins expressed their disappointment with the way the slavery and exclusion questions had been handled. Dryer, predictably, complained that the Democrats had prevented free state delegates from voicing their opinions and that the convention had shirked its duty by failing to debate the slavery issue. William Watkins objected to the exclusion clause, particularly a section that denied black people the right to bring a suit in court. Denying that he was an abolitionist, he said that he did not feel obliged to treat black people as his equals. Still, under this clause they would have no legal protections at all.
Under this barbarous provision (for I can use no milder term) the negro is cast upon the world with no defense; his life, liberty, his property, his all, are dependent on the caprice, the passion, and the inveterate prejudices of not only the community at large but of every felon who may happen to cover an inhuman heart with a white face?
If there was any way to prevent black people from coming to Oregon without denying them justice he would favor such a bill, but he could not support legislation that would place other human beings so completely outside the protection of the law.
In November, 1857, the voters approved the constitution by a vote of 7,195 to 3,215. Slavery was defeated by a vote of 2,645 yes to 7,727 no. The exclusion clause, which on the ballot read "Do you vote for free Negroes in Oregon7 Yes, or No," received the highest number of favorable votes, 8,640 voting for exclusion, 1,081 against.
The margin of defeat on the slavery issue suggests that the slavery controversy was more apparent than real. One Democrat remarked, "There was not much agitation. Another observer recalled,
· . . [that was] the situation in Oregon at that time, whose people were in far more danger of the introduction of slavery among them than the people of Kansas were at any time. True, they were not harassed by any border ruffian invasion or any flagrant interference of the Washington administration, but their apathy or rather their slavish subservience to party discipline was truly appalling.
The political waters were indeed muddy on the issue of slavery. While the Democratic party included factions which supported or opposed slavery, their planned program of silence amounted to a studied indifference on the issue. The Whigs and Republicans did not fare much better. Determined to support the peculiar interpretation of popular sovereignty which guaranteed local self control, they nevertheless chose not to address the issue of slavery except by saying that it should be solved by the federal government.
The slavery issue in the press was frequently personal and partisan if also characterized by a brilliant mastery of invective prose that has come to be called the "Oregon style" of journalism. The Weekly Oregonian and Oregon Argus had limited circulation, and probably were not read by one-eighth of the population. The Oregonian has been called "a distinctively Whig journal with incidental anti-slavery proclivities. W.L. Adams, editor of the Oregon Argus, was called "the chief informer, energizer and rally center of the distinctively antislavery forces of that day. In October, 1857, between the adoption of the constitution by the delegates and the public vote, the Oregon Argus published a letter critical of the exclusion clause.
Now in the name of justice and humanity, what induced the Convention to say anything about free negroes Are we overrun with them, or are we likely to be7 Are they more troublesome than Indians . . . Shall we, men of the nineteenth century, surrounded by the lights of civilization, by the arts and sciences, by the onward strides of freedom, and by the bright and softening rays of revelation, shall we, I say, support a Constitution which provides that human slavery, intolerance, persecution and tyranny, may under any circumstances be made the rule of government?
The Oregon Statesman was widely read, and had great influence among Democrats. Although Bush by reputation supported a free state, his casual contempt for outspoken critics of slavery and his position within the "Salem Clique" and close personal identity with Southerners such as Joseph Lane, fueled the fears of the opponents of slavery.
It was characteristic for advocates of a free state to preface their arguments by disavowing any sympathy with abolitionists, and evidence suggests that the most effective argument was the strictly practical economic analysis of slavery presented in Williams' "Free State Letter". One observer of the era noted the effect this letter had on public opinion.
After the circulation of this address, any observing person could notice that a change was taking place; any sensitive person could feel it. The people for whom the address was intended were beginning to discover themselves and think aloud. And I assert that what is here written is no afterthought, but the results of inquiry and observation made at the time?
Some people, this writer asserted, who had intended to support slavery changed their minds as a result of this letter.
At Roseburg, the home of General Lane and Judge M.P. Deady, whose influence, whether authorized or not, was in favor of the institution, I learned from a Reverend Anderson that the tide had turned, and that he met with surprises every day. In Rogue River Valley I was assured by my cousins that the tide was running out quite rapidly. The noisy slaveocrats of Jackson County had been claiming that county for slavery, but many people were exercising their fancy in supposing the consequences that might ensue when runaway niggers should get with the Modoc and Klamath Indians. The picture was not agreeable. The people of southern Oregon had had enough of Indian warfare. The aforementioned impediments to slavery extension as well as others, were brought to the front by the Judge, in plain, straightforward and forcible language, which no doubt set the people to thinking more connectedly and comprehensively than they otherwise would; and while the effects of such a lesson in ratiocination may not be estimated with any approach to accuracy, I am confident that it was the most timely and the most effective appeal published during the whole of the controversy.
Faced with a decision, Oregonians were not aided by party rhetoric or yellow journalism, but by a single letter which appealed not to their moral conscience, but to their economic selfinterest. That, apparently, was enough.
The admission of Oregon by Congress was not without opposition and delay; congressional debate was dominated by political and sectional considerations. As early as 1854, Joseph Lane had urged Congress to pass an act authorizing the formation of a state government in Oregon, but the bill introduced that year and another introduced in 1856 were defeated. Oregon thus formed its constitution without formal authorization by the federal government.
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