Debating Religion and Voting Rights

A man gives a speech to a big crowd
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. 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.

Church and State Issues

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


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." Footnote 3

A mural of a preacher at Pulpt Rock in The Dalles
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.
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. Footnote 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." Footnote 5

A drawing of immigrants at Ellis Island
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 they should wait five years. William Watkins said, "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." Footnote 6

A painting of a clipper ship
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. Footnote 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." Footnote 8 Matthew Deady indignantly declared "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." Footnote 9 After further debate, the two sides found common ground. Deady proposed a revision leaving the residency requirement at six months but added the provision that a person "shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States one year preceding such election." Footnote 10

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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.