This exhibit consists of over 250 Web pages and hundreds of images. It explores the development of the Oregon Constitution, particularly events surrounding the 1857 constitutional convention. In the process, it examines life, politics, and important issues in the years before and after the convention. It also looks at how the constitution has evolved during the 150 years since the convention. Generally, the exhibit follows the course of Oregon history chronologically from the era of the fur traders to the present.
Click Next >> at the bottom of each page to sequence through the exhibit.
Or, use the header or footer links to find tables of contents for each section.
"Before the convention" section
The 60 delegates who would craft the Oregon Constitution didn't just come out of nowhere to take their seats at the 1857 convention in Salem. They carried strong and often conflicting beliefs, experiences, and aspirations into the room. Thus, it's important to set the context of their experiences in the decades before the convention in order to answer questions about why they acted as they did in writing the constitution. For example, why were attitudes and statements that are seen as so racist today accepted as part of the normal political discourse in the 1850s? The Before the Convention section reviews key trends and events in Oregon and American history to help define the goals, fears, and motivations of the delegates and the citizens they represented.
"During the convention" section
With the general context of society and politics established, the During the Convention section focuses more closely on the individual delegates, with all of their strengths and weaknesses. The section examines the central issues of the convention, often with the overriding question of the day—slavery—standing just off-stage. Thus, delegates argued about who should be allowed to vote, what provisions should be included in the bill of rights, and how powerful corporations should be allowed to grow. Many of the issues of importance to them continue to resonate today. Their debates about separation of church and state, the limits of development, and acceptance of immigrants are not unrelated to today's headlines.
"After the convention" section
The fitful process of winning ratification of the constitution by Oregon voters and especially by Congress opens the After the Convention section. Many observers predicted that the Oregon Constitution would never emerge from the roiling sectional strife of Congress on the eve of the Civil War. But the clouds parted long enough to ensure statehood. The ensuing decades saw the growth of a political system based heavily on money and influence as railroads and other corporate interests largely controlled a corrupt process. Change came only with the emergence of reformers such as William U'ren, father of the Oregon System of initiative and referendum. That system of direct legislation continues today as constitutional amendments exert a profound influence on the day-to-day lives of Oregonians.
The Personal Lives of Delegates
Thomas Dryer, influential editor of the Oregonian newspaper and prominent delegate at the constitutional convention, apparently had a credibility problem when it came to the use of alcohol.
His strong advocacy of temperance was not uncommon for someone associated with the Whig Party. However, the well-known fact that he was a drunk left the door open for his political opponents to gleefully skewer him with charges of hypocrisy.
Asahel Bush, editor of the rival Oregon Statesman newspaper in Salem, was keen to point out that people in other states where Dryer had resided before Oregon had bestowed on him a number of names referring to his fondness for the bottle. These included "toddy Jep," "gimlet eye," and "slop basin." Bush and his friends enjoyed exchanging reports about Dryer's drinking binges in Portland. Matthew Deady, convention president, once ridiculed "the damned old sot! Where I have drank a pint he has drank his gallons."(1)
Read more tidbits of background about the constitutional convention delegates and other Oregon political figures of the time on the trivia page of this exhibit.
"Learn more" section
Researchers wanting to gather more information about the constitution should explore the Learn More section of the exhibit. Scanned images of the entire 1857 Oregon Constitution are included along with transcriptions of the entire text. Listings of all of the amendments from 1902 to 2006 are available as well. The section also features another way to play games to learn about the constitution—trivia, puzzles, and quizzes are offered to test the reader's knowledge of the document.
Finally, the Web links to other resources on the Internet offer pathways to more learning about the Oregon Constitution, other state constitutions, and the U.S. Constitution.
The main goals for this exhibit are to educate and entertain. The exhibit quotes extensively from accounts of the constitutional convention as well as newspaper letters to the editors, reminiscences, and other sources to help tell the story in the words of the times. Images, in the form of photographs, drawings, cartoons, maps, and other resources, complement the text and join sidebars in highlighting important people, events, or concepts.
While designed for a general audience, this exhibit includes resources for students. Middle school students and older will find useful information.
Please note that some of the subject matter and images include insensitive portrayals of racial groups such as blacks, Chinese, and Indians. The statements, descriptions of attitudes, and images are included in this exhibit because they play a vital part of conveying the context of the times accurately.
This exhibit is based on both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include the original constitution and convention journal. The exhibit also includes information based on direct research in newspapers of the time. Secondary sources include books, journal articles, and Web sites. The main source is Charles H. Carey's 1926 book entitled The Oregon Constitution and Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1857. This work continues to be the single most useful source of information about the convention. It includes transcriptions of the convention proceedings from the two most important newspapers of the time. Footnotes are used to refer readers to sources for further research.
About the images
Please note that images in this exhibit have been edited for display purposes. This may include cropping, coloration, and other manipulations of the original images. Some of the images in this exhibit are from the records of the Oregon State Archives. These are supplemented by images from Web sources. Most of the image captions include citations of the sources (e.g., Image courtesy Library of Congress). Please contact the sources cited for copies of images. Images lacking any citation are commonly available on the Web.
We welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. Please contact us.