Debating Religion and Voting Rights

Delegates supported strong provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the Oregon Constitution. (Image courtesy E Pluribus Unum)

Delegates supported strong provisions for freedom of speech in the Oregon Constitution. (Image courtesy E Pluribus Unum)

The delegates left the convention with a constitution offering a liberal bill of rights that went far in protecting individuals from the excesses and intrusions of the state. Freedom of expression "on any subject whatever" could not be restrained; private property could not be taken without just compensation; and no taxation could be imposed without the consent of the people. While vigorously supporting freedom of religion, the convention also expressed strong beliefs about the separation of church and state. But they showed that they had limits as well. Despite the nod they gave to women's separate property rights, the question of women's suffrage was never seriously raised. And, although the first words of the bill of rights read "We declare that all men, when they form a social compact are equal in right," the delegates considered proposals that would have prohibited foreign immigrants from voting for five years.

Preachers, such as circuit rider John Rigdon, were welcome as long as the state didn't have to pay them. (Image courtesy ncbible.org)

Preachers, such as circuit rider John Rigdon, were welcome as long as the state didn't have to pay them. (Image courtesy ncbible.org)

Church and state issues
Debate about religion began after a committee submitted a section "declaring that no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the compensation of any religious services...." Hector Campbell rose to complain that in practical terms the provision would prohibit the employment of a chaplain by the legislature. He asked "why was it that our armies on the plains of Mexico were superior to their enemies? It is their moral power? We recognize the instrumentality of an overruling and allwise and almighty Providence, that has hitherto guided and controlled the destinies of our nation, and to which we are indebted for the enjoyment of our privileges. But now, shall we take the back track and become a nation of infidels?" Thomas Dryer agreed, saying that "he believed that money should be drawn from the treasury to pay for religious services just as readily and as liberally as to pay for any other services. Sir, ...are you to take this position, that religion is an ill, and that it is unworthy of any sort of compensation? Why, sir, that is worse than infidelity. It is a disgrace to any country."(1)

But Campbell and Dryer found plenty of opposition. Frederick Waymire contended that "if a chaplain was to be elected from any denomination, all of the other denominations would feel slighted, and feel as mad as ____ about it." But money probably had more to do with Waymire's opinion since he was always against the government spending money on anything that it could get for free. He continued that

He was perfectly willing that the legislature should have a chaplain, but opposed to paying one out of the public treasury. If we didn't hold out any inducement to them for pay, we might get good men to act without pay, but the moment you do hold out the inducement of pay, money-loving ministers will be crowding down on us, and button-holing the legislature all the time. The very worst class of preachers will come and log-roll and electioneer for the purpose of getting hold of the public teat.(2)

Matthew Deady supported the idea of an unpaid chaplain for the legislature but warned that "if he were one of those stump pulpit orators and fanatical demagogues with which our generation is cursed, I should vote against him. A pious and good man would not be insulted by being asked to pray without pay." George Williams went on to claim that paying a chaplain amounted to an unfair form of taxation, declaring that "a man in this country had a right to be a Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, or what else he chose, but no government had the moral right to tax all of these creeds and classes to inculcate directly or indirectly the tenets of any one of them."(3)

Women's Property Rights

Delegates wanted to protect wives from irresponsible husbands. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. malD0014)

Delegates wanted to protect wives from irresponsible husbands. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. malD0014)

While the delegates did not seriously entertain the possibility of voting rights for women, they did approve a strong measure protecting women's property rights. Many women had 320 acres of land in their names as a result of provisions in the Donation Land Act of 1850 that gave 640 acres of federal land to married couples. In the wake of abuses, a proposal sought to protect the wife's half of property from creditors trying to collect judgments against "the improvidence or spendthrift habits of her husband."

George Williams predicted dire consequences if the proposal passed: "In this age of woman's rights and insane theories, our legislation should be such as to unite the family circle, and make husband and wife what they should be—bone of one bone, and flesh of one flesh. He claimed that the Donation Land Act "had been the cause of much domestic trouble and many divorces in this country." Meanwhile, John Kelsay worried that the provision would give the woman too much power, making "the husband simply a boarder at the wife's establishment."

Frederick Waymire worried about unscrupulous men marrying for money. (Oregon State Archives image no. 265)

Frederick Waymire worried about unscrupulous men marrying for money. (Oregon State Archives image no. 265)

But Frederick Waymire turned the debate with his arguments in favor of women's property rights: "If we should legislate for any class it should be the women of this country. They worked harder than anybody else in it. How many men had already in this country married girls, used them a year or two, spent all their property, and put off to the states. He didn't want a man to marry a daughter of his, with a large band of cattle, and then skin the cattle, and skin her, and leave her. If men married for money they ought not to have control of it. Every day they live together they live in adultery, for he married the money and not the girl."(11)

Matthew Deady decried some "stump pulpit orators" as a curse. Shown above is a mural of a sermon at Pulpit Rock in The Dalles. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. wasc0037)

Enlarge image
Matthew Deady decried some "stump pulpit orators" as a curse.
Shown above is a mural of a sermon at Pulpit Rock in The Dalles. (Oregon State Archives scenic image no. wasc0037)

Ultimately, the delegates voted 31 to 15 to strongly affirm separation of church and state with the section reading that "no money shall be drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any religious, or theological institution, nor shall any money be appropriated for the payment of any religious services in either house of the Legislative Assembly." While this provision of the bill of rights seemed to be aimed partly at repelling the "stump pulpit orators and fanatical demagogues" from the halls of the legislature, other provisions armed religion against governmental intrusions. Thus, they declared that "no law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religeous [sic] opinions...." Likewise, the delegates prohibited any religious test as a qualification for office and they said that religion should have no role in deciding the competence of jurors or witnesses in trials.(4)

Suffrage for foreign immigrants
In contrast to the expansive rights provided to individuals in the realm of religion, the delegates were stingy in handing out the right to vote. Suspicion, hatred, and racism punctuated the debate around the question of who would enjoy suffrage in the new state. One argument focused on when to grant voting rights to immigrants. The committee report proposed copying the Indiana Constitution, which extended the vote to "every white male of foreign birth of the age of 21 years and upwards, who shall have resided in the United States one year, and shall have resided in this state during the six months immediately preceding such election."(5)

Delegates debated how long to make immigrants wait before enjoying full rights in the new state.

Delegates debated how long to make immigrants wait before enjoying full rights in the new state.

But opposition came on at least two fronts. First, strong anti-immigrant feelings ran just under the surface of some of the anti-Democrats who saw the waves of foreigners as a threat to the country. They argued that six months was too short of time for residence to vote—instead it should be one year or more. John McBride claimed that they should wait five years. William Watkins said that "foreigners should reside long enough in our country to become acquainted with our language, institutions, and people, before voting." Meanwhile, Thomas Dryer contended more generally that "a foreigner was not capable of administering the laws of the country as a native-born citizen. ...[T]hey should never control him or the rights and liberties of the people." And, always keen to ferret out the political motivations, he saw a Democratic plan to pack the ballot boxes with the votes of grateful immigrants, charging that "there was a great disposition on the part of some members of the convention to court popularity by sympathizing with foreigners. He thought they felt disposed to give the foreigners more liberty than those who were born on the soil."(6)

Delazon Smith praised immigrants for braving perilous voyages to get to Oregon.

Delazon Smith praised immigrants for braving perilous voyages to get to Oregon.

The Democrats responded and the debate continued until compromise language finally was added. Delazon Smith brushed off charges about "secret societies of foreigners to control the ballot boxes" and claimed that liberal voting laws had worked fine in other states.(7) Besides, he said that "any foreigner who had the energy of character enough to leave all and brave the perils of two oceans and come to the Pacific Coast, he was willing to trust."(8) Matthew Deady indignantly declared that "he had no sympathy with those who oppose foreigners—his father was a foreigner, and every drop of blood in his veins was of foreign origin."(9) After further debate, the two sides found common ground. Deady proposed a revision that would leave the residency requirement at six months but would add the provision that a person "shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States one year preceding such election."(10)

Decorative divider

Notes:
1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 296-298.
2. Ibid., 298.
3. Ibid., 300-301, 305.
4. Ibid., 330, 401.
5. Ibid., 173.
6. Ibid., 320; David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 179.
7. David Alan Johnson, Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 179.
8. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 323.
9. Ibid., 322.
10. Ibid., 404.
11. Ibid., 368-369.

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An exhibit by the Oregon State Archives - Copyright © 2009