Oregon Ratifies the Constitution

The first of two signature pages in the constitution. Most of the delegates signed the document at the end of the convention. Jesse Applegate left early and didn't add his signature. He complained that "under the rules of caucus-sovereignty an opposition member was as useless as a fifth wheel to a wagon." (Oregon State Archives image)

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The first of two signature pages in the constitution. Most of the delegates signed the document at the end of the convention. Jesse Applegate left early and didn't add his signature. He complained that "under the rules of caucus-sovereignty an opposition member was as useless as a fifth wheel to a wagon." (Oregon State Archives image)

As the delegates cast their mostly party line votes on the enrolled constitution at the end of the convention, they were already looking forward to taking their arguments for or against ratification to the people. The issue of slavery once again dominated the debate as partisans hurled accusations through the newspapers. Once the votes were counted it became clear that Oregonians liked the constitution. They also rejected slavery and nearly nine out of ten voters didn't want free blacks in their state.

On the last day of the convention, September 18, 1857, the delegates held to the partisan script and voted 35 to 10 in favor of the completed constitution. The Salem Clique had maintained its control to the end. Anti-Democrats such as Thomas Dryer and David Logan voted against the constitution, joined also by a small number of "soft" Democrats such as Martin Olds. Others opposing the process or the product of the convention were among the 15 names listed as "absent or not voting." These included Jesse Applegate and Levi Scott, who had abandoned the convention weeks earlier, and Republican John McBride. Interestingly, most of those who were opposed or absent signed the document, with some signatures added later. In total, 52 of the 60 delegates signed the constitution.(1)

Oregon Argus editor William Adams said that the constitution would "instill its poison into the body politic." (Image courtesy ncbible.org)

Oregon Argus editor William Adams said that the constitution would "instill its poison into the body politic." (Image courtesy ncbible.org)

Campaigning for voters
Both sides waged a campaign for voters in the short period between the end of the convention and the November 9th ratification election. Several newspapers were arrayed against passage of the constitution. These included the free-state Oregonian, Oregon Argus, and the Standard as well as the intensely pro-slavery Messenger. Oregon Argus editor William Adams described the constitution as "a huge viper, with poisonous fangs in its head, a legion of legs in its belly and a deadly sting in its tail." He continued with the metaphor: "It is now coiled up, labeled from head to tail with Democracy, trying to charm the people to take it into their bosom, when it will instill its poison into the body politic and render it as completely paralyzed as under the odious principle of caucus sovereignty."(2)

Using his typical hyperbolic rhetoric, editor William Adams attacked the constitution, describing it as "a huge viper...trying to charm the people to take it into their bosom." (Mark Catesby print image courtesy philographikon.com)

Using his typical hyperbolic rhetoric, editor William Adams attacked the constitution, describing it as "a huge viper...trying to charm the people to take it into their bosom." (Mark Catesby print image courtesy philographikon.com)

Oregonian editor Thomas Dryer soon weighed in as well. In spite of his considerable presence at the convention, Dryer lambasted the "Salem conspirators," claiming that "the truth is, none but the Salem Clique had anything to do with drafting that instrument. It was prepared in advance at Salem, to subserve the interest and preserve the controlling power in the hands of that little band known as the 'Salem Inquisition.'" He accused Democratic delegates of "surrender[ing] their birthright and manhood, as well as the interests of their constituents to the ordeal of the Salem 'party caucus.' In doing this they have fixed the seat of government at Salem for all time; have tied up the hands of future legislatures; [and] have prevented any amendments to the constitution for at least eight years by taking all power from the people, and placing it in the hands of the party caucus. In short, [they] became slaves and serfs to a petty party monarchy, comprising a half score of reckless office-hunting knaves in and about Salem, who have too long controlled the political rights of the people of Oregon."(3)

Those in favor of passage were not silent either. Of course, the Democrats responded in kind with Asahel Bush leading the charge through the pages of the Oregon Statesman and Delazon Smith delivering plenty of stump speeches. Meanwhile, other voices, such as the Oregon Weekly Times newspaper, appealed for progress:

American society was built on the concept of progress, as shown in this 1872 painting. (Image no. 09855v courtesy Library of Congress)

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America was built on the concept of progress, as shown in this 1872 painting. (Image courtesy Library of Congress)

We are a people of progression. To stand still and inert is stagnation, and it is full time that we divest ourselves of the swaddlings, throw away the "bib apron," and play the deeper and nobler act that belongs to maturity and to manhood. Oregon no longer requires guardianship, but is to-day capable and fitted to the assumption of her sphere amid the bright and lustrous constellation of free and independent States.

Oregon must now become a state, or she is nothing.... Our choice is humiliating, neglected and contemned vassalage and serfdom, or sovereignty and full-grown manhood of state government.(4)

A decisive vote
Oregon's electorate voted decisively on all three questions. Their viva voce votes (oral votes in public view) left no doubt that the convention had indeed reflected their attitudes. Oregonians endorsed the constitution by more than two to one. Their votes against slavery and free blacks, expressing their ideal of an Oregon with only free white labor, were even more striking—with 75 percent voting down slavery and 89 percent in favor of prohibiting the immigration of free blacks to the state. Two counties, Columbia and Wasco, voted against the constitution. No county was even close to voting in favor of allowing free blacks in Oregon. Likewise, no county voted in favor of slavery. However, Jackson County narrowly voted it down 426 to 405.(5)

The Oregon Statesman published the following official returns on the November 9, 1857 vote:

 
Constitution
Slavery
Free blacks
Counties
Yes
No
Yes
No
Yes
No
Benton
440
215
283
368
132
459
Clackamas
530
216
98
655
113
594
Clatsop
62
37
25
71
25
65
Columbia
30
66
11
84
24
66
Coos
68
26
19
72
10
79
Curry
117
14
35
95
8
121
Douglas
419
203
248
377
23
560
Jackson
465
372
405
426
46
710
Josephine
445
139
155
435
41
534
Lane
591
362
356
602
97
783
Linn
1111
176
198
1092
113
1095
Marion
1024
252
214
1055
76
1115
Multnomah
496
255
96
653
112
587
Polk
528
188
231
484
53
584
Tillamook
23
1
6
22
1
25
Umpqua
155
84
32
201
24
181
Wasco
55
89
58
85
18
122
Washington
265
226
68
428
80
393
Yamhill
371
274
107
522
85
521
 
----------------
----------------
----------------
----------------
----------------
----------------
Total
7195
3215
2645
7727
1081
8640
Majorities
3980
5082
7559
           
(6)

Thomas Dryer had little confidence that Congress would approve the Oregon Constitution. Shown above is the U.S. Capitol in circa 1846. (Image no vc006223 courtesy Library of Congress)

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Thomas Dryer had little confidence that Congress would approve the Oregon Constitution. Shown above is the U.S. Capitol in circa 1846. (Image no vc006223 courtesy Library of Congress)

Reaction to the vote
Once the voters had spoken, reaction came from all sides. Seeking to heal potential wounds, Asahel Bush declared that Oregon Democrats would regard the vote as a settled question. There would be no retribution—no difference in standing or influence—based on how party members voted in the election: "The watchword shall be harmony." He went on to issue a warning to eastern newspapers not to misinterpret Oregon's overwhelming vote against slavery. Bush claimed that Oregonians did not seek to elevate slaves at the expense of whites: "Let not Black Republicanism lay the flattering unction to its soul that we are free soilish here."(7) Despite the vote, Thomas Dryer doubted "that any free state" could be admitted to the union with pro-slavery James Buchanan as president. And, he worried that "the constitution contains provisions which will be regarded by even a locofoco Congress, in direct violation of the liberal principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States."(8)

Meanwhile, the Corvallis pro-slavery Messenger newspaper simply refused to accept the vote as final. It argued that according to the doctrine of equal rights between the states, the territories were common property. Therefore, the people of a territory had no power to exclude slave-holders, since doing so would invalidate the common partnership. It pondered the extreme:

"As great an evil as disunion would be, we consider there is still a greater, and that is, submission to the unrestricted will of a reckless fanaticism which overrides the barriers erected by the Constitution for the protection of the minority, and tramples with ruthless iron heel, upon the plainest principles of justice and liberty."(9)

Fate would provide Oregon newspapers with plenty of time to write editorials and publish letters to the editor about the prospects of statehood. All sides of the question locally would be forced to endure over a year of uncertainty before receiving an answer from Washington D.C. The question appeared to be hopelessly tangled with the politics of slavery on the national level.

Decorative divider

Notes:
1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 397, 35.
2. Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 119.
3. Oregonian, October 24, 1857.
4. Claudia Burton, "A Legislative History of the Oregon Constitution of 1857—Part III," Willamette Law Review 40 (2004): 425.
5. Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 120.
6. Ibid., Appendix 1.
7. Ibid, 120-121.
8. Oregonian, November 14, 1857.
9. Walter Carleton Woodward, The Rise and Early History of Political Parties in Oregon, 1843-1868 (Portland: J.K. Gill Company, 1913) 121.

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