Exploring the Limits of Debate

A portrait of George Williams
George Williams argued for shorter convention speeches, fearing delegates would waste time on "silly questions" while ignoring important issues. (Image no. 04874v courtesy Library of Congress)
As discussion ensued on how to structure the process of the convention, delegates argued over restrictions on the length and content of speeches. The issue boiled down to two questions for the dominant Democrats: How to keep long-winded orators, such as their own Delazon Smith, in check so the convention could be completed in a reasonable period of time; and how to stifle debate about slavery in order to avoid potentially fatal divisions within the party and the convention. While most Democrats obliged, with the intermittent exception of the indefatigable Smith, the opposition took relish in shining a light on the "tyranny" of the majority and the folly of "dodging the nigger question."

Long-winded Speakers

The delegates argued at length over whether to limit the length of speeches to 40 minutes, which in an age of oration was considered too restrictive by some. Still, others clearly disagreed as witnessed by one early tabled resolution to limit speeches to 15 minutes. Indeed, the question came up several times during the convention and generally revolved around two opinions. Some, such as George Williams, argued that time needed to be regulated so the convention could be completed in a reasonable period of time. He feared delegates would engage in three or four weeks of long speeches "upon immaterial subjects" and then be forced to hurry through important subjects at the end in order to end the session. Williams referred to the example of a Massachusetts convention that dragged on for three months and filled most of three volumes with "silly questions" before it became necessary to adopt a five-minute speech rule to finally close the proceedings. Footnote 1

A portrait of Senator Henry Clay standing
While not sharing political beliefs with legendary Whig Senator Henry Clay, delegate Delazon Smith must have admired his skills of oration. (Image courtesy University of Louisville)
Others argued that the debates were too important to impose time limits. The longest winded of these were Thomas Dryer and Delazon Smith. Smith, from Linn County, was also known as the "Lion of Linn" by his admirers and as "Delusion Smith" by his detractors. None, however, doubted his oratorical skills or his willingness to employ them. He admitted that "I have no doubt that I talk too much" but claimed he had "the gift of gab" and that "the people of the country expect us to talk." Perhaps considering himself a kindred spirit of great legislative orators such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Smith said, "I do not desire to be cramped with your 40-minute rules.... Why sir, I could not begin to have a good sweat on by that time. Some men can not get their minds off freely until they get warmed up. I am among that number. And right in the midst of my progress the hammer of the speaker falls and I am cut short. As well to be cut off at the knees. I would rather not speak at all." Footnote 2

Smith had his supporters in resisting the limitations on speeches. However, his political opponent, Thomas Dryer, certainly had ulterior motives when he rose to heap praise on Smith: "[B]y my vote there shall be no padlock put upon my friend Smith's lips, for I like to hear him talk. I like to hear him roll forth those lofty bursts of eloquence which agitate men's souls and set them to thinking, and I shall not for myself, forego the intellectual treat of listening to him, because there may those whose cowardice would induce them to ignore the question [of slavery] altogether." Footnote 3 But others grew weary of Smith's long orations. At one point, David Logan proposed that each member be charged for reporting based on the length of their speeches. Smith recognized the proposal was aimed at him and felt compelled to vindicate himself...with a long speech. Footnote 4 But Smith's supporters on the issue melted away as the convention proceeded and patience grew shorter. After progressively shrinking over the course of weeks, the speech limit finally reached five minutes on September 8 after a decisive vote of 30 to 11. Footnote 5

Dodging the "Nigger Question" 

A drawing of Jesse Applegate
Jesse Applegate stirred up a hornet's nest by proposing to ban debate about slavery.
The Democrats generally wanted to avoid discussion of the slavery issue and instead submit it to a direct vote of the people. This would reduce open divisions within the party, save time, generally make for a more economical convention, and likely enhance their later chances at state office. But many of the anti-Democrats had less interest in helping the Democrats run an efficient operation. Instead, they saw an opportunity to poke a stick in the eye of the Salem Clique. Their chance came when delegate Jesse Applegate sought adoption of a resolution making "all debate upon the subject of slavery, either as an abstract proposition or as a mere matter of policy, out of order." His resolution claimed that such debate would only be "calculated to engender bitter feelings among the members of this body, destroy its harmony, retard its business and unnecessarily prolong its session." Footnote 6

Delegate Thomas Dryer, just as he had done for years as editor of the Oregonian newspaper, railed against Applegate's proposal to ban discussion of slavery. Dryer didn't oppose submitting the slavery question to a vote of the people, but he was against "dodging the nigger question" at the convention, saying he "wanted every man to show his hand." Moreover, he smelled a Democratic plot: "The Salem Clique was chained to the black car of slavery, and they were resolved to fasten niggerism upon Oregon. And they wanted to stifle debate here as a preliminary step." Footnote 7 Dryer further derided the resolution:


Others, such as Erasmus Shattuck, also chaffed at the restriction: "Is it to be supposed that members are going to sit quiet and suffer a gag to be put in our mouth? To call ourselves freemen and to see ourselves be made slaves here?" Footnote 9

A portrait of Stephen Chadwick
Stephen Chadwick denied trying to "gag" long-winded speakers but believed the convention was not the place to debate the issue of slavery.
Meanwhile, Democrat Delazon Smith couldn't find it in him to "put a padlock...upon the lips of any other gentlemen," even his opponents. Smith claimed to concur with those who wanted to avoid discussion of slavery: "For one, I should be well satisfied that this convention should proceed to the formation of a constitution without any discussion upon the question of slavery.... If no other gentleman introduces that question here, I pledge myself not to consume the time of the house in its discussion." However, if the subject were broached by others, he seemed to be agreeable to discussing it, as long as the convention did not make a final decision on slavery. Smith dramatically proclaimed that "I would sooner sever my right hand as to vote for a constitution that would either inhibit or adopt slavery here." Footnote 10

But the majority wanted nothing of it. George Williams favored the resolution banning debate of slavery, saying that "it was perfectly proper for the convention to cut it off, and economize time." He considered slavery to be an abstract question "foreign to the purpose of this convention." The only exception Williams saw was to discuss the mechanics of how the issue would be presented separately to the voters. Likewise, Stephen Chadwick supported the resolution and denied an attempt to limit freedom of speech: We do not propose to gag them; we only ask for common fairness at their hands. ...Upon the question of slavery, it is none of your business how I shall vote and none of mine how you may choose to record your vote." Footnote 11

Despite this early debate over Applegate's resolution to ban discussion of slavery, no official action was taken. Historian Charles H. Carey observed that "outside of this particular debate little was said in the open convention on the burning topic." Footnote 12 Perhaps delegates sensed the potential for disaster was too strong, leading to an informal self-restraint. They would instead put the issue of slavery in Oregon directly to a vote of the people.

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Notes

  1. Carey, Oregon Constitution, 97.
  2. Ibid., 80-94.
  3. Ibid., 82.
  4. Ibid., 28.
  5. Ibid., 290.
  6. Ibid., 80.
  7. Ibid., 88.
  8. Ibid., 82-83.
  9. Ibid., 85.
  10. Ibid., 80.
  11. Ibid., 85-87.
  12. Ibid., 31-32.
  13. Ibid., 489.